Elizabethtown must prevent flooding. But with little money, options are limited

By Ben Rappaport

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Stephen Duffy feels like he’s constantly playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.

Elizabethtown’s public services director is stuck in a stormwater doomsday scenario of filling potholes and sealing broken pipes as needed, but never addressing the root cause of the damage caused by stormwater. That’s because the city of Bladen County, like most municipalities in southeastern North Carolina, does not have a budget to prevent flooding and erosion from heavy rainfall.

“All we can do now is respond to a catastrophic failure,” Duffy said. “The government, from the top down, is simply not making rainwater a priority.”

In the three years since Duffy took over as public services director, he says Elizabethtown has made little progress in stormwater management, largely due to inadequate funding.

Solutions to stormwater problems often involve directing water to the soil so it can be absorbed into the ground rather than quickly flowing through impervious surfaces and filling homes and businesses. When the water goes into the ground, it can be filtered and flow into streams and rivers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal and state governments do not often fund stormwater solutions in small towns; infrastructure money is instead used to build and maintain local water and sewer lines.

Standing next to a storm drain in downtown Elizabethtown, Public Services Director Stephen Duffy explains how runoff can lead to flooding of many local businesses. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

Elizabethtown’s 3,200 residents know the damage rainwater can cause, especially during hurricanes. In 2018, Hurricane Florence dumped 3 feet of rain on the city — the highest storm rainfall in the state — closing several roads and destroying homes. The town of Kelly, less than 25 miles from Elizabethtown, was evacuated when a 30-foot-wide breach opened in a levee along the Cape Fear River. The storm surge from Florence resulted in at least 42 deaths and more than $16 billion in damage across the state.

Small towns are not taken into account

North Carolina needs more than $2.76 billion over the next 15 years to address stormwater problems, according to a study by the Environmental Finance Center at the UNC School of Government. The study found that nearly $10 billion was spent on sewer and water projects, but less than $430 million on stormwater.

Stormwater subsidies often go to larger cities like Charlotte or Raleigh. The study shows that about 60% of estimated needs are in the state’s seven largest cities, with populations of more than 100,000 people, amounting to approximately $1.67 billion in needs. Municipalities with 10,000 residents or less are responsible for $432 million in stormwater needs across the state.

Duffy said Elizabethtown needs “tens of millions of dollars” to solve existing stormwater problems. The city has consistently applied for state funding for stormwater projects, but has rarely received assistance because the state often prioritizes funding for projects based on the number of residents affected. Small towns are therefore not taken into account.

Under the Clean Water Act, state environmental agencies are required to implement stormwater management plans for urbanized areas designated by the US Census. An urbanized area is defined as a ‘continuously built-up area with a population of 50,000 or more’.

In addition to other measures, these plans force municipalities to undertake public information, education and monitoring of rainwater. Some of these plans have been implemented in smaller cities with at least 10,000 inhabitants.

In the Border Belt region of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, only two cities – Lumberton in Robeson and Laurinburg in Scotland – exceed the 10,000 population threshold. Neither has a rainwater management plan.

Only three municipalities in the region have introduced stormwater charges to generate revenue for projects. The Columbus County cities of Whiteville and Chadbourn charge monthly fees of $6 and $3, respectively. Lumberton charges $4.25 per month.

The city of Pembroke is in the process of creating a stormwater management program after receiving two $140,000 grants last year: an environmental improvement grant through the attorney general’s office and another from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality .

The utility is being created to address “drainage, runoff and other issues” in the city, Pembroke Town Manager Tyler Thomas said in a statement Friday. The city will charge residents $3 a month to make necessary improvements and hire staff.

Thomas said the city’s current approach is similar to Elizabethtown’s: tackling problems as they arise, without solving bigger problems.

“We know we will never get subsidies to solve every stormwater problem,” Thomas said Border belt independent. “But stormwater is a complaint we get all the time and we had to do something to address it.”

‘People don’t like paying more taxes’

Duffy said he has encouraged Elizabethtown leaders several times to consider establishing a stormwater facility, including at a budget retreat in March, to no avail. The money generated from a stormwater fee would help the city move forward on its priority projects, which would focus on minimizing the impacts of flooding and increasing stormwater capacity. It would also allow the city to take out low-interest loans for larger projects, Duffy said.

Stephen Duffy shows off Elizabethtown’s sweeper truck, used to collect debris and leaves after big rainstorms. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

“Yes, it is compensation that benefits everyone,” he said. “But it is still seen as a tax and people don’t like paying more taxes.”

Although stormwater financing for small towns is limited, there is some money available at the provincial level. Bladen County recently commissioned a stormwater survey by LKC Engineering and the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency in six municipalities: Bladenboro, Clarkton, Dublin, Elizabethtown, Tarheel and White Lake. The study found that many communities are located on flat land in low-lying areas prone to flooding. LKC recommended stormwater mitigation projects for each municipality, as well as options to finance the changes. However, implementing the improvements outlined in the study is now the task of the cities.

“It’s time to stop watching and evaluating,” Duffy said. “It’s time to start acting and fixing. Let’s put the money into the physical infrastructure and make things happen.”

The study shows that Elizabethtown needs to improve storm drainage, build larger culverts and stabilize erosion control. Duffy identified several projects he hopes the city will undertake, the most important of which is the flooding issue on King Street.

“Every time more than an inch of rain falls, people’s crawl spaces and backyards in that part of town are doomed to flood,” he said.

The solution would be to increase the neighborhood’s intake capacity, allowing more water to flow into the pipes after a storm. An inlet is a grate or recess in the sidewalk that allows rainwater to flow into storm drains. Elizabethtown has applied for funding for the King Street project through the North Carolina Division of Water Infrastructure.

“Until there is a funding mechanism from the federal and state government that is accessible to rural communities,” Duffy said, “there is really no other good answer because right now there are zero dollars.”

Elizabethtown recently replaced stormwater pipes on King Street, an area prone to flooding. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)