Friday, June 21, 2019

Results of Stormwater Drainage Survey

Many thanks to all who took the time to take the survey on stormwater drainage.

The complete results are here:  

The survey results were sent to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen earlier in the week. 

There is something for everyone in the survey responses. There are people in flood plains that have never had any drainage issues, and people not in flood plains that had four feet of water in their homes in the latest incident. There were reports of City officials acting swiftly to address drainage issues (mostly to remove items from stormwater ditches when residents report them), and reports of broken promises by the City regarding fixing problems. Likewise the blame for issues was put squarely on Mother Nature, or, conversely, on outdated and crumbling infrastructure and failure of the City to keep the drains free of debris. 

First the numbers: Forty-seven percent of the responders reported at least some degree of problems with drainage, while fifty three percent reported having none. That may or may not be comparable to the percentages in the City at large. It is possible that those with drainage issues were more likely to answer the survey than those who have no problems with drainage. This is not a scientific survey and there is no way to know the definitive city-wide figure from this survey alone.

Thirty-five percent of responders indicated satisfaction with the seven years the City plans to take updating and overhauling the drainage infrastructure, while fifty-seven percent would rather see the improvements expedited. The rest were unsure due to not having enough information. 

I was particularly interested in the answers of the discussion questions. What do residents think is the cause of their drainage issues? Obviously the answer is not simply rain. Rain, by definition, is a required feature in any type of naturally caused flooding event, but it is a combination of rain plus the inadequacy the drainage system to handle the storm that turns a rain event of any size into a problem. Ten inches of rain fell over a few hours in one specific neighborhood in the recent floods, and the City stated that the drainage system worked properly, but was simply overwhelmed by the unprecedented amount of precipitation. (see Germantown Crews Assessing Flood Damage After System "simply overwhelmed' by storms).  Because the receding water occurred rapidly in the coves off Brachton, some residents maintain that there must have been a blockage in the drainage system that was very suddenly cleared. (see Germantown Residents Rebuilding after Flooding, blame City for Damages).

The responses on the survey mainly dealt with ongoing issues with stormwater, and these were mostly blamed on the way the water flows from neighbors' yards.  Fixing an issue in one person's yard often affects a neighbor. One person even claimed that the City recommended his taking a specific remedial action for a problem that would have adversely affected his neighbors, so he did not take it. It is counter productive for neighbors to fix their own problems to the detriment of others, when addressing the overall neighborhood issues systemically would be far more efficient and equitable. Also, swimming pools and other structures are currently approved without any thought for drainage issues that these alterations could cause for nearby homeowners. 

Several people reported that they could not make the needed changes to drainage at their homes because they lacked the funds. Indeed, a few reported spending tens of thousands of dollars fixing their home's drainage issues. One respondent was very happy with the result of the expensive improvements, only to find that the problems recurred after further development in the area. 

Recent spring flooding in the Forest Hill area
Development was another major theme in the answers. A number of respondents reported that they had no problems until a development was built close to them. New developments causing drainage issues for surrounding neighborhoods has been a concern of mine since seeing video of flooding yards from Forest Hill area residents. Prior to the building of the school and widening of the road, the residents experienced no flooding. Dramatic video is included in this Daily Memphian article-- Germantown Residents Want Fix to Forest Hill Flooding.

Prior to approval, all development projects are required to submit an expert report on the effects that project will have on  drainage . Of course, the developer pays the expert, and therefore the expert is beholden to the developer. Obviously, there is no separate expert that advocates for the adjacent homeowners whose drainage could be affected. Given the survey responses, the neutrality of the developer-hired experts has to be called into question. The City may need to begin critically challenging the reports that are submitted, because it is unacceptable when a development adversely affects an already established neighborhood.  

The most concerning factor mentioned in the survey was that the ditches tend to become dumping grounds, either from residents or contractors. This, of course, blocks the flow of the stormwater, causing flooding. One person even reported that City street sweepers regularly blow leaves into the drainage system. Some state that the City does not maintain the drainage system as well as in the past. One person said that small trees are allowed to grow in the system, and that the roots are crumbling the concrete. Is this all true? I cannot confirm any of this, but it certainly deserves to be investigated.

Many have seen the picture of the large tree blocking the drainage ditch near Houston High School after the recent storm. That may have caused one of the backups of flood water in the June 7 event. I do not know if it had anything to do with HHS having hundreds of thousand dollars of damage. Why was the tree there, how long had it been there, and where did it come from? Most resident-reported blockages are addressed quickly, but I wonder how much regular inspection and maintenance is happening. What else was lurking unnoticed in the drainage system?  

If the City does not have the manpower for regular inspections of ditches, keeping them free of blockages, it needs more funding for the Public Works budget for repairs and maintenance. A ditch is meant to control flood waters, and not meant to be a dumping ground for unused construction equipment and fallen trees.

While I know that the planned overhaul of the drainage infrastructure cannot happen overnight, I hope it will be accomplished in as timely a fashion as possible. Yes, it will be expensive, but these improvements are necessary, and the City can easily postpone expenditures for streetscapes and the Master Parks plan in order to prioritize these desperately needed infrastructure improvements. I also hope that the City will not skimp on these plans, and will taken into account the clear trend for more "unprecedented" rain events. Graphs indicating this trend may be seen at the EPA website. A "one hundred year" or "five hundred year" flood should be based on projections into the future, and not historical data. See this Climate Central website, where you can enter different cities and see trend lines of extreme rain events.. 

From the Cllimate Central website

Here are some other stories about the recent flood, the responses to it by the City, and the heartwarming responses by citizens.

Germantown to Consider Disaster Declaration

$250K set for Germantown Flood Relief; City Looks for More Donations

Flooding in Germantown Costs Houston High School Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars

Germantown Mayor of Board of Aldermen Move to Request Disaster Declaration After Flooding  

County Commission Approves $100,000 for Germantown flood relief  

Germantown Flood Victims Receive Help with Cleanup


  1. I've been hearing from a lot of people that their comments about the city doing a good job with drainage have been omitted from your report. Can you explain why?

  2. Untrue. The only thing omitted was duplicate entries by the same person, and even those were included in the statistics, despite the fact that the person entered several responses.😒