Originally created 08/31/97

Growth offsets anti-flood work



Lake Court residents Linda and Warren Jones had 22 inches of water swirling through their house the morning of the 1990 flood.

A year later when the creek rose again, flooding West Lake Forest Drive and heading toward Lake Court, the Joneses moved all their furniture upstairs and prayed that future threatening waters would spare their home.

Their prayers were answered that time and later when Lake Aumond, whose natural bed had been altered by a developer to become the site for homes in Lake Court, threatened to flood the cul de sac again.

Today, Mrs. Jones "hopes and prays" there won't be another flood like the one in 1990. But she doesn't worry about it much.

Maybe she and others who live near Rae's Creek should.

Despite millions of dollars in flood-prevention work, their neighborhoods are still likely to flood again, thanks to continued development in the most flood-prone areas.

Augusta taxpayers have sunk $14 million in flood-control projects along Rae's Creek and its tributary, Crane's Creek, in the past 10 years to remedy past problems of building in the flood plain, the land that borders creeks and rivers.

But developers have poured millions more into houses and shopping centers over the past decade that will affect the creek's capacity to handle a big storm.

"You are going to continue to have the localized flooding because of new developments," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Jim Parker.

The building, legal but questionable, will cause more flooding with the next big storm, he said.

"It's not simply new subdivisions. Probably some of the things that are even worse are areas where you're going to build a large shopping center with a huge parking lot. That kind of runoff with no soft ground for anything to filter into can be very disruptive," he said.

Augusta author Michael White said he has tried to sound the warning in two books he has written about Rae's Creek.

"There were at least 150 families that I know of whose houses were in the flood plain that were harmed in the 1990 flood," Mr. White said. "Today, there are between 180 and 190 families."

Since the 1990 flood, two big shopping centers have been built in west Augusta. They aren't supposed to increase stormwater runoff because the drainage systems are designed to retain storm water and release it slowly, according to the engineers who signed off on them.

But Mr. Parker said it's obvious "the more you build, and the more concrete you put down, and the more trees and vegetation that's removed, the more drainage and runoff there is and the bigger the opportunity becomes for flood events.

"You see that over and over in areas that are heavily developed," he said.

Engineers who signed off on projects such as the 85-acre Augusta Exchange off Wheeler Road Extension have staked their professional reputations on them, said Augusta Planning Commission Director George Patty. The developers, meanwhile, have complied with the county's ordinances.

"They have seriously changed the contours and they've seriously changed the permeability of that site," said Mr. Patty. "There's no question about that. But they've got a right to develop their property if they can show it conforms to our rules and it isn't going to adversely affect the public welfare. And they have done that."

Augusta Exchange owners Jim Timberlake and Tom Abernathy said the local government is very concerned about runoff - as they said it should be - and was strict with drainage requirements at their new shopping center, which is under construction.

"The county looked at it real close," Mr. Timberlake said.

The development contains a 2.5-acre retention pond to handle runoff from the parking lot and the city's public road through the project, he said.

Much of today's drainage problems come from old developments that were not required to provide stormwater retention ponds, Mr. Timberlake said.

Mr. Parker said the problem is that local officials look at each development in isolation instead of collectively.

Further contributing to the problem are federal maps designating flood plain areas - maps which influence how city officials issue building permits - that are outdated and in some cases wrong.

Flood plain elevations along creeks and rivers in Augusta haven't been changed since the Corps of Engineers' initial computer modeling in 1974. Federal Emergency Management Agency maps are based on that data.

The first phase of a federal study of the Augusta-Richmond County drainage system - aimed at coming up with comprehensive flood controls - begins in October, Mr. Parker said. Just the first phase of that process will take a year.

Meanwhile, today's development is still governed by 1974's map.

The Corps of Engineers then compiled a special report on Rae's Creek and warned of continued development in the flood plain. But local government had no flood-control ordinance until 1979 and no power to stop it, said Mr. Patty.

"You could build in the water if you wanted to," he said. "And that's how those houses on Chelsea and some of the others down there got built.

"And, you know, it was a mistake and it shouldn't have been done. But it took from '74 until '79 when the first ordinance was passed to get in the program.

"A lot of development occurred during that time," Mr. Patty said. "The Forest Hills Racquet Club - that whole thing was developed right up to the creek on both sides. No retention, little paved streets, no drainage, dense developments, rooftops and all that."

Much development was approved during the time the flood ordinance was being debated and it contributes heavily to today's flood problems, Mr. Patty said.

"Mistakes were made back before we had a flood ordinance, that can't be corrected," Mr. Patty said. "As far as Lake Aumond, I'm not going to argue that was a good thing."

Lake Aumond was once a beautiful 25acre lake, a natural retention basin that has been reduced to a 10-acre pond. What started out in the 1970s as a dredging job to improve its flood-retention capabilities ended up with much of the lake being filled in for home lots.

In 1989 and 1990, developer Bill Gaskins filled in more of the lake for lots before running afoul of the Corps of Engineers for wetlands violations.

In the big flood of 1990, Lake Aumond subdivision residents like the Joneses bore the brunt of having their homes located in a large flood-retention pond.

The Richmond County Commission condemned the lake in 1991 and paid Mr. Gaskins $109,500 for it, along with two illegally created lots.

There are now 11 homes and six vacant lots situated where Lake Aumond waters lapped before it was lowered in the 1950s and developed beginning in the 1970s, according to Mr. White.

After the disastrous 1990 flood, Richmond County passed a stricter ordinance - the second-strictest in Georgia, Mr. Patty said - but houses are still being built in low-lying areas near the creek and on Lake Aumond.

FEMA maps show floodways - channels that carry the water and the area around it that would be expected to flood in a storm of a magnitude that would occur only once in 100 years.

But FEMA maps show no floodways around ponds, lakes and parts of some streams because they are not considered "moving water."

Therefore, rules designating where building is allowed does not apply to contiguous property. And that allows developers to build closer to the water.

In Columbia County, for example, residents recently learned they might be asked to finance $21 million in stormwater control programs made necessary by outdated - or flawed - flood plain mapping.

Flood plain levels in much of the Reed Creek Basin are too low to protect property and public safety, according to a preliminary report by a consulting firm employed by the county.

Affected areas include Bowen Pond, West Lake, Foxfire, Blue Ridge, Fury's Ferry Road, Forest Creek, Old Evans Road, Mullins Pond, undeveloped areas along Washington Road and Springlakes subdivision.

"We're sure some of them (maps) are not correct," Mr. Patty said. "But it's all we've got. We would like to say you can't build in the flood plain, period. But there's the other side of the coin ... "

Blocking development without hard data to back it up is tantamount to taking someone's property, he explained. That would mean reimbursing them for the loss.

"The only objective data we have is this federal data that establishes these floodplains and these probabilities of flooding. It's the only thing we've got to go by that puts us in a confident legal position," Mr. Patty said.

The lack of designated floodway on FEMA maps allowed building around Hiers Ponds and Lake Aumond in west Augusta long after the 1990 flood.

The last house built on the flood plain in Raintree Place on Hiers' upper pond was built in 1994.

"As far as Raintree Place subdivision, that's the same deal," Mr. Patty said. "There is no floodway shown on the map. So all they had to be was one foot above the 100-year flood elevation. And they are."

Since the 1990 flood, at least one house has been built on one of the lots Mr. Gaskins created at the edge of Lake Aumond. Creek Bend subdivision off Lafayette Drive has sprung up in a low-lying area near the creek bank and several houses were built in Montclair subdivision that concerned county officials.

Pete Belvin, city construction inspections supervisor, said he and Jim Leiper, former Richmond County environmental engineer, had opposed the Creek Bend development.

"Jim Leiper and I recommended that they not build there," Mr. Belvin said.

Mr. Leiper also frowned on new construction in the Montclair subdivision near the flood plain, he said.

"I looked at every reason I could not to let that development go on," Mr. Leiper said. "Based on standard codes and ordinances, my hands were tied to some degree as to whether I could restrict development in that area."

The $14 million in taxpayer money spent on Rae's Creek flood controls won't stop flooding from the kind of rain that fell in 1990, said Jack Murphy, the county's pre-construction engineer.

"If we have another flood like 1990, there is absolutely not enough money available in Richmond County to cure the drainage problems that a storm like that one would bring to us," he said.

"What we're trying to do is correct those problems that are out there that a normal storm brings to us," Mr. Murphy said.

City officials should buy flood plain land to stop the construction, Mr. White suggested.

"We've spent $14 million in just 10 years," he said. "If we're going to help these people now, why should we put more people in the way so we've got to spend more millions down the road?

"I think it's a scandal. It's an absolute scandal."