Concern that some metro cities and counties weren’t maintaining storm water infrastructure such as drains and detention ponds prompted the state to require stepped-up inspections beginning in 2008.
The state Environmental Protection Division found, however, that many governments didn’t know what storm water controls they had. At least eight of 15 metro governments hadn’t finished or were just finishing infrastructure inventories as of their 2009 reports to the state, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found.
Most metro governments are supposed to inspect about a fifth of their infrastructure each year. But some examined 1 percent or less of certain drainage features, state records show. Maintenance and inspections can be expensive.
“The struggle is how do you pay for it with limited resources when you have citizens that want police, firemen and libraries,” said Tom Gehl, a deputy director of governmental relations for the Georgia Municipal Association.
Meanwhile, climatologists have detected a recent trend across the Southeast toward heavier rainfalls — just the sort that can overwhelm aging infrastructure such as drains and underground lines that, in some areas, no longer work.
In Smyrna, Tanay Crawford’s townhouse in Afton Downs flooded three times in five weeks in 2008, submerging the hardwood on her first floor in 3 inches to 4 inches of water.
“The cleanup every time was a nightmare,” she said.
It took her months to realize that a clogged drain in the street was sending more water than usual rushing toward her 1981 townhouse, which sat below street level. She said she pestered Smyrna officials until crews fixed the drain.
State records suggest storm drain lines — which carry water from places such as streets to drainage ditches, ponds or other outlets — are particularly neglected. Without regular maintenance, clogs and breaks are inevitable over time.
Many storm water pipes are 20 years to 30 years old and nearing the end of their useful life, said Michael Thomas, general manager of Clayton’s water authority. “We’re seeing cave-ins in the street and people’s yards,” he said, “and people don’t have the funds to replace that.”
Yet at least seven of the 15 cities and counties either didn’t know how many storm lines they had or reported inspecting fewer than a fifth of them, state reports show. The cities of Kennesaw, Alpharetta and Roswell, as well as Clayton County, reported so few inspections they approached zero percent of the system.
Local officials said they are trying to comply with the state rules, which is sometimes a matter of better documenting work they are already doing. Clayton officials are keeping track of inspections more closely and doing more of them. In Kennesaw, Alpharetta and Fulton County, crews typically look in catch basins — drains in the street to collect rainwater — to find problems in lines between them, instead of inspecting the lines separately, officials said. Roswell plans to meet the state target for inspections this year.
Atlanta residents complain
In Atlanta’s Buckhead, Virginia Highland and Midtown neighborhoods, residents complain the city’s neglect of infrastructure worsens flooding.
Vivian Harding has owned her Buckhead house, now a rental, for three decades. Banks of a creek on her property line are eroding, widening and inching closer to her foundation in one place.
“I’m watching my house being taken by this creek,” she said.
The volume of water grew after the city installed sidewalks in 2006, she said, and she worries a sewer pipe in the creek bed is in jeopardy. She wants the city to clear a nearby storm pipe outlet, reinforce the bed and reduce the runoff.
“The city just sits back and is doing nothing about it,” she said, adding her property value has likely plummeted. “Who’s going to buy this problem?”
Atlanta watershed management department spokeswoman Janet Ward said workers have examined the situation and do not believe the city is responsible for fixing it.
In any case, Atlanta has told state officials the city can only afford to do maintenance in emergencies. State officials warned, “If the city conducts the inspections as required, but does not follow up with maintenance of the structures found to be deficient, then the inspection program is almost useless.”
“Right now, our storm water focus is on public safety,” Ward said. “Our focus is on getting the streets clear so cars don’t wreck.”
Money and manpower
Gwinnett County spent nearly $16 million in 2008 and $22 million in 2009 on storm water management. Alpharetta spent more than $900,000 in the 2009 fiscal year and projected this year’s budget will top $1.8 million. Storm water staffing ranges from two workers in small cities to 60 in Gwinnett.
The high cost of repairs has spurred more than 40 Georgia counties and cities to create storm water “utilities,” which charge property owners fees based on square footage of impervious, or nonabsorbent, surface — such as roofs, driveways and parking lots. The fees provide a consistent source of cash for repairs, instead of forcing local officials to find money in the general fund. Fees can run in the thousands of dollars for commercial developments.
The Council for Quality Growth, a developers’ group, supports utilities, but they can be a tough sell with taxpayers. In Cobb County, talk of creating one drew such vociferous opposition that the County Commission never put the idea to a vote, Chairman Sam Olens said.
“It was called the rain tax,” he said. “The public had zero appetite for the issue.”
Cobb instead boosted spending on storm water using county funds. Yet, without a utility, the county will take longer to reduce its backlog of problems, he said.
Several officials said their cities are hesitant to propose new fees now because of the poor economic climate. Atlanta, however, is considering reviving a utility it disbanded years ago.
“Right now we’re just reacting,” said Ward, the Atlanta watershed management department spokeswoman. “There’s no way to pay for it without a utility.”