Poor storm water drainage in the Jackson/Green Street area in Starkville has allowed heavy rainfall to ravage the playground at Overstreet Elementary School. According to a city drainage study, none of the 10 pipes tasked with moving storm water from the school and surrounding neighborhood can handle the flow from even a 2-year rain event. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Emmett Smitherman of Starkville points up the hill from his South Jackson Street home toward the nearby area from where storm water flows into his neighborhood. He's asking city officials to remedy the poor drainage system in the area, where storms can pile up to two feet of water across Jackson Street right in front of his home.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
March 8, 2017 10:57:55 AM
Emmett Smitherman is a third-generation resident of his home on South Jackson Street, right next door to Overstreet Elementary School where local public school fifth graders attend.
Smitherman's grandfather bought the Victorian-style home at the intersection of Jackson and Green streets in 1910 and raised his father there. It was also Emmett's childhood home and ultimately, the place where he and his wife, Beverly, have made a life.
Things have changed over the past year in Smitherman's neighborhood and not for the better. Three major rain events since spring 2016 have brought severe flooding to his and his neighbors' yards, sometimes with up to two feet of water accumulating on Jackson Street right in front of his home.
"It's like a river," Smitherman said. "It's never been this way before. ... And it's not even just about the water in the yards. A lot of cars come through here, and it's just a matter of time before two cars come through (the flooded area of Jackson Street) at the same time during one of these rains and have a wreck."
The school isn't faring much better.
Storm water, on at least two occasions, has ravaged the playground, Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway said, carrying oak crossties several feet from the play areas where they were installed and washing away the mulch meant to make the playground safer.
"The stuff we put in there just won't stay," Holloway said.
At first, Smitherman, a former Starkville alderman, thought the underground drainage pipes were clogged, and he contacted city staff. Turns out, the 50-year-old pipes were too small for the task, leaving too much water above ground during the storm that was essentially waiting its turn to enter the drainage system.
About the same time the trouble started, a new multi-million dollar apartment complex, The Balcony, completed development on South Montgomery Street right next to Central Station -- and directly uphill from Overstreet Elementary and Smitherman's neighborhood.
City officials told The Dispatch the development, funded by Brian Malone of Auburn, Alabama, and Pat Chism of Nashville, Tennessee, meets all tenets of Starkville's storm water ordinance. Be that as it may, Smitherman is convinced poor city planning for the 30-unit complex is the culprit of the drainage problem.
"If they allowed that big apartment complex to come in when the pipes already aren't big enough, it looks like someone didn't do their homework," he said.
The root of the problem
Starkville first approved a storm water ordinance in 2007. It required all new developments to retain all of its storm water for up to 25-year storm events, sometimes in what amounted to ponds being built on the property, and releasing it directly into the drainage pipes without allowing it to run off to the surface of other properties, Mayor Parker Wiseman said.
In 2010, the board of aldermen loosened the policy, Wiseman said, to strike a better balance between public need and the cost burden the city placed on developers.
Now, City Engineer Edward Kemp said, the ordinance requires developments to ensure that no more water runs off from the post-developed property than it did pre-development in the cases of storm events that would occur an average of two years and 10 years.
At The Balcony, that meant building inlets to 15-to-30-inch underground pipes to collect storm water on the property and an eight-inch outlet to slowly release it to the rest of the system. However, a storm that is greater than a 10-year rain event -- at least two that flooded Smitherman's neighborhood, Kemp said, were 25-year events -- will undoubtedly overload that system.
Still, Kemp admits the concrete pipes downstream, those that run through the Overstreet property and the surrounding neighborhood, can scarcely handle regular rainfall. In fact, a city drainage study of the area shows only one of the 10 pipes, all of which are 18 or 24 inches in diameter, tasked with draining that area can handle half the capacity needed for a 2-year storm event. Three of them can't even handle a third of the needed flow capacity.
In 10-year events, the gap widens more drastically.
These drainage pipes join a host of others in Starkville that were "grandfathered in" after the ordinances came into effect, Kemp said.
More to the point, he said smaller developments in the neighborhood that were too small to need storm water ordinance scrutiny, or occurred before 2007, accumulated to stress the system.
Any time a natural surface is paved, or a rooftop is added, water runs off the harder surface faster and less is absorbed. So, Kemp said, while one home construction or driveway addition in an area wouldn't independently make that much impact, several such projects in that area over the course of decades could overwhelm the drainage system.
In the past decade, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving problem areas all over the city -- most notably a $650,000 Carver Drive ditch project near OCH Regional Medical Center paid for through low-interest CAP loans procured with the help of the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District. More areas than just the Jackson/Green Street corridor continue to suffer from drainage issues, he added.
"The unique thing about this situation is that it's on public property," Wiseman said of the issue around Overstreet. "So much of what we see is on private property, and that requires things like purchasing easements before we can even begin to address them.
"In this case, we need to continue to evaluate surface conditions during major storms in the area and weigh our options," he added. "Certainly the flooding isn't desirable, and we need to seek a remedy. But the situation doesn't become an emergency until the road is impassible."
Both Smitherman and SOCSD leadership have pressed Kemp about the possibility of installing a larger pipe in the area to relieve the flooding.
The solution may not be that simple, Kemp said. First, there's the practicality of installing larger pipes in one area that would convey more storm water faster into an area further down the system -- essentially trading in one problem for another. Then, of course, there's the cost.
Kemp's office conceptualized a project that would replace an old pipe under Green Street, which runs between the school and Smitherman's home, with 662 feet of 36-inch pipe. That, along with five additional inlets along the corridor, would catch and convey most of the water before it reached the Overstreet playground and relieve much of the flooding concerns. The price tag on that project, though, is an estimated $172,000 -- way outside the city budget's reach.
"I knew it was a budget buster to begin with," Kemp said. "There are zero capital improvement dollars in this year's budget for (the) Community Development (Department).
Wiseman confirmed all $520,000 the city budgeted for capital improvement this fiscal year, which began in October 2016, has been divided evenly among the city's seven aldermen for discretionary street projects in their wards.
Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, who chairs the city's Budget and Finance Committee and also represents the residents of the affected neighborhood around Overstreet, said at a recent board of aldermen meeting the drainage issue could not possibly be addressed until at least the next budget cycle.
Maynard, who will end his first term on the board on June 30 and is not seeking re-election, failed to return several calls and messages from The Dispatch seeking comment for this article.
A creative solution
Both Wiseman and Kemp said building a retention area on unused property at Overstreet Elementary could offer a cheaper, more creative solution to the flooding problem.
Such a project, Kemp said, could take many landscape forms -- from an actual pond to a terraced area -- but the net affect would theoretically be the same. Water from major storm events would collect in the retention area and release into the existing pipes at a rate they can better handle.
Kemp noted he had no cost estimates for such a project, and he hasn't even formally approached the school with the idea.
Holloway said SOCSD has worked with the city on past projects, and he is open to listening to whatever proposal the city might have in mind. That said, he's not overly enthused at the prospect of the school district coughing up resources -- or land -- to fix what he calls a "city problem" caused by inadequate city infrastructure.
"This is not a school district problem," he added. "Yes, we want the problem fixed. But we don't want to have to buy into something that's someone else's problem."
Whatever the solution, and whenever it finally arrives, Smitherman hopes it's not too late.
During heavy rains, water is creeping to his garage doors and seeping under his house. If it continues, he fears it might damage the home's foundation.
"I don't want this to cause foundation problems, but if it does, I guess I'll just file a claim against the city's insurance," he said. "We're not leaving."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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