City pulls out of flood study

Published 9:26 am Friday, May 6, 2011

FRANKLIN—An Army Corps of Engineers study of flooding in the Chowan River Basin is in the final stages of its first phase, but it appears the City of Franklin will not participate in the process moving forward.

Instead, the city is pursuing a cheaper method of preventing a recurrence of a devastating flood in 1999 and a smaller flood in 2006: adding drop gates to culverts at railroad underpasses behind City Hall and on Franklin Street.

Mayor Jim Councill said the drop gates would cost about $250,000.

The next phase of the Corps of Engineers study would cost at least $2 million, of which localities throughout the basin would be expected to contribute a large portion.

The culverts where the city plans to install drop gates are designed to drain precipitation runoff into the Blackwater River; unfortunately, those same culverts can help increase the risk of flooding when conditions are right, said Vince Holt, the city’s director of emergency services.

“As the river rises, the water will take the path of least resistance,” Holt said. “Storm water goes into the river during a typical situation, but water can also backflow into ditches.”

He said drop gates would act as a check valve and water could flow into the river — but not back out as easily into streets and ditches.

Herman Wine, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the city cited financial concerns as a reason for not participating in the Corps’ feasibility study. He said the Corps would continue to communicate with the city in hopes it can find a companion project to help supplement the drop-gate idea.

“We are still going to be communicating with them,” he said.

Holt said the gate project was originally laid out as part of an all-hazard mitigation plan; as a result, the city could seek money for the project from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hazard mitigation program.

If the project qualifies, Holt said 75 percent of the funding would come from the federal government and 20 percent from the state, leaving Franklin to pay just 5 percent of the total cost of the project.

“The biggest qualification is that it was part of our hazard mitigation plan,” Holt said. “It needs to be something they can tell you’ve put some though into. I think it would be a project that is graded pretty well.”

Councill said the city will also seek federal and state money to add rain gauges and stream gauges to monitor the river’s height and flow.

Holt said the reconnaissance phase of the Corps of Engineers study found that there is not much of a gauge system, which would help warn the city of impending flood conditions.

Holt said the cost of five new stream gauges would be $125,000; the price tag to update rainfall gauges is about $75,000. Holt believes money for this project could be available through the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Wine said the Corps is finishing the first phase of its study with a reconnaissance report and is still seeking non-federal sponsorships for the funding needed to start on the second phase of the study.

In addition to flooding concerns, the Corps study will look at environmental restoration, stream bank erosion and other navigation issues.

The Blackwater, Nottoway and Meherrin rivers are all part of the Chowan River Basin, which is about 130 miles long and drains 5,000 square miles of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Eleven counties in Virginia and five in North Carolina make up the basin.