Recent heavy rains have some residents sounding alarm bells about stormwater runoff from construction sites polluting Lake Lanier coves around Gainesville.
“Sediment-laden stormwater flowing from poorly planned developments is one of the leading sources of water pollution in Georgia,” said Jason Ulseth, spokesman for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a lead environmental advocacy group. “It clogs pipes and culverts, destroys aquatic ecosystems and fills in lakes and reservoirs.”
Residents, concerned about forecasts calling for El Niño-inspired rainfall throughout the winter, are questioning whether Gainesville officials are sacrificing the lake’s water quality, and its importance as an economic resource, for short-term development gains.
“We’ve had a lot of rain lately and we can just do so much, especially when Mother Nature throws out 2 or 3 inches in an hour or so,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said during discussion of the issue Tuesday at a City Council meeting.
While the city works to address erosion problems and runoff at the new North Lake Square shopping center on Dawsonville Highway and similar issues at a residential construction site off Patten Drive, residents said they fear dredging and cleanup costs will ultimately fall on their shoulders.
“These particular problems are not the result of worn-out infrastructure and deferred sewer maintenance,” Lakeshore Heights homeowner Pat Horgan said.
NORTH LAKE SQUARE
Local residents have been persistent to make sure city officials know about problems with erosion and stormwater infrastructure at this new shopping center, which is home to big box stores Hobby Lobby and Academy Sports + Outdoors.
A detention pond meant to control stormwater runoff appeared to leak sediment for some time in late December.
“This latest storm created much storm runoff,” Michael Proulx, a member of the Lakeshore Heights Neighborhood Association, said after days of rain sent silt and mud flowing uncontrolled into the cove where his house is located.
“However, there is a difference between what nature causes and what is man-made. The extent of the damage is widespread, with silt drifting southward into the main cove of Longwood Park.”
Public Works Director David Dockery told The Times that sediment from the bottom of a detention pond at the shopping center had been suspended by rainwater flowing in, making the silt easier to leak out.
Crews have now spent a few weeks monitoring the site.
“City staff and the developer identified a few stormwater repair and maintenance items that needed to be addressed,” said Myron Bennett, engineering and construction division manager in the Gainesville Department of Water Resources.
“The contractor made the necessary repairs to be in compliance with city stormwater regulations and installed additional measures to protect the work site during future rain events.”
The ongoing monitoring includes inspectors visiting the site every day to ensure the contractors and developer are adequately maintaining their erosion control measures, Bennett added.
Developer Tim Knight of Knight Commercial Real Estate in Duluth did not return calls for comment.
While placing straw and hay bales on mud and in front of storm drains has helped, Proulx said runoff was still leaching through silt fencing, and filter cloths on the drain in one detention pond have been poorly constructed.
“The bottom line: Silt should not be leaving the ponds,” Proulx said.
Horgan has been inspecting the runoff into two coves by boat for several weeks now, reflecting on what it might foreshadow when a subdivision development on nearby Ahaluna Drive breaks ground in the coming years.
“God only knows what long-term damage was and is still being caused to the lake and wildlife,” Horgan said. “Consider 190 homes on a narrow peninsula with the lake on both sides. I don’t even like to think about it.”
Residents said they are unconvinced the city’s enforcement will deter future problems.
No citations or fines were given for stormwater runoff pollution during 2015, according to city records, though the city saw a record number of building permits.
“No discussion of fines or penalties for those responsible,” Horgan said. “No discussion of cleanup. No discussion of who will eventually have to pay for dredging the cove if required.”
Homeowner Kevin O’Connor has spent months documenting the silt and mud runoff flowing regularly into his slice of heaven on the lake in a residential neighborhood off Thompson Bridge Road.
The before-and-after pictures reveal the ongoing environmental destruction. He’s even reviewed ordinances and codes to make sure there are no exceptions.
“I have been communicating with the city … for several months regarding a property being redeveloped that is creating a significant runoff into the lake,” he said. “They have cited the property owner and repairs (have been) made to the silt fencing, but the problems continue and there is no discernable stormwater runoff plan that I can tell.”
City officials said a cease-and-desist order had been given, but as neighbors attested, construction has continued.
O’Connor urged officials during a City Council meeting this week to be more diligent in their enforcement.
After all, cleanup costs add up for residents like him.
For example, runoff from previous developments channeling down Slaughterhouse Creek and into the same cove, undercut banks, exposed roots and downed trees, driving silt into the lake.
That cove was dredged a few years ago at an expense of about $200,000 to local property owners, according to residents in the area.
Meanwhile, in 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged 125,000 cubic yards of silt from Longwood Cove, a $2.3 million project that also involved building a retaining wall and extending the greenway that runs into the adjacent park in downtown Gainesville.
And according to a survey completed about seven or eight years ago, an estimated 32,000 cubic yards of silt had been deposited into Lake Knickerbocker at that time, and residents tried in vain to raise the money needed to dredge it.
Councilmember Sam Couvillon said he is “confident something will be done” about these recent runoff problems, before adding a caveat.
“Short of us shutting that development down, leveling it, putting trees back on it. … There are going to be people who aren’t happy,” Couvillon said.
THE FUTURE OF STORMWATER
Officials have warned that aging pipes, costly road washouts and new state and federal water quality regulations have prompted the need for a self-sustaining fee program to pay for stormwater infrastructure upgrades.
The initial fee proposal called for charging $1 for every 1,000 square feet of impervious surface on residential, commercial, nonprofit and government property.
There are more than 124 million square feet of impervious surfaces in Gainesville alone.
Churches, hospitals and even government buildings will be subject to the new fee, which could rise to $1.25 in 2019 and $1.50 in 2020 under current proposals.
Only federal, state, county and city roads and rights of way are exempt.
Officials have told The Times they plan to hold public meetings on the proposed fee and expect to hold a vote by April.
“We don’t want the city to spin this disaster into a new tax,” Horgan said. “The problems appear to be government and developer lack of prudence, listening, planning, design, oversight, monitoring and responsiveness.”