Stormwater controls fail to protect lakes – and homes

The muddy stormwater that turned Browns Cove orange after this week's rain should look familiar to Jeff and Kimiko LeNeave. Some of it came through their Lake Wylie house.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Fay washed tons of sediment into area lakes. The 100-year storm, which has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, overwhelmed silt fences and sediment ponds designed only for 10-year storms.

The failures are “proof that our sediment and erosion controls don't work,” said Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman. “Just about every creek and the lakes are a nice orange brown.”

Too often, Merryman said, erosion controls aren't designed to control heavy rain, are poorly installed or not maintained. “We know we can design for more,” he said.

The LeNeaves' shake-and-stone house sits down-slope from a large new subdivision, where sediment ponds have been dug to catch runoff. But the amount of stormwater washing across their property has worsened as the subdivision grew, the couple say.

Heavy rain Tuesday night sent waves of stormwater down the slope, across their front yard. Water lapped under the front door, flooded the basement for a third time in 11 years and washed pine-bark mulch into the lake.

The couple's complaints to city regulators and the builders of the Berewick subdivision have gotten them nowhere, they say, beyond new landscaping. City officials have told them the subdivision isn't breaking any laws.

“It ends up with everybody in a circle, pointing at the next guy,” Jeff LeNeave said. “There's a problem, but nobody wants to fix it.”

Earlier problems were fixed

John Geer, Charlotte's erosion-control administrator, said Berewick has addressed erosion problems in the past. The problem now, he said, is that there is less open ground to soak up rainwater.

“I doubt that there's anything been done wrong in the subdivision” in regard to stormwater, Geer said. “It's just that (the LeNeave house) is in the low spot and that's where the water is coming.”

Neighbors say Browns Cove has been filling with sediment since construction of nearby Interstate 485 began several years ago. Mecklenburg County's water-quality staff is studying how much silt has settled to the bottom of the cove, but can't say now where it's coming from.

“At the rate we're going,” said Kimiko LeNeave, “we're going to be looking at a football field instead of a lake cove.”

The LeNeaves say a consultant for KB Home, which built in the Berewick “village” closest to them, has promised to set up another meeting with city officials to talk about their problem. A local KB Home official referred the Observer to its corporate office, which did not respond to e-mailed questions.

County stormwater and land development staff also “are talking so that we can figure out what the situation is and who needs to handle it,” spokeswoman Jennifer Krupowicz said Friday.

‘Just full of mud'

By volume, sediment from stormwater and erosion is North Carolina's biggest water pollutant.

State and local laws say sediment can't be allowed to wash off disturbed ground, typically construction sites, into streams or lakes. But control structures such as silt fences are required to withstand only 10- or 20-year storms, not the deluge that dropped up to 10 inches of rain this week.

“The (Catawba) river and all the creeks are just full of mud” after erosion-control structures failed, said Rusty Rozzelle, the county's water programs chief. “There's not a whole lot we can do about it.”

In York County, water rose above silt fences and sediment ponds at a construction project to widen S.C. 274, apparently dumping mud into Little Allison Creek and Big Allison Creek on Lake Wylie. The extent of damage isn't yet known, said Phil Leazer, a project manager on the county engineering staff.

But many structures held up better than expected, said Zahid Khan, Charlotte-region manager of the N.C. agency that enforces erosion-control law.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation recently trained the first 30 volunteers for Muddy Water Watch (www.muddywaterwatch.org), which will serve as eyes and ears for sediment problems throughout the basin.

“I hope it acts as a wake-up call,” Merryman said.