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Will wetland park ease Southbridge flooding woes?

This time, they’re serious about it.

After years of studies, reports, meetings and promises, City of Wilmington authorities are pushing ahead with a plan to resolve at least some of the chronic flooding in the city’s impoverished Southbridge neighborhood.

Wilmington Deputy Director of Eco. Development Jeff Flynn discuses Southbridge wetland park.

Wilmington Deputy Director of Eco. Development Jeff Flynn discusses Southbridge wetland park.

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Just cleaning out drains and ditches hasn’t helped Southbridge avoid flooding that’s become more frequent and more severe. Last year, on Dec. 21, a nor’easter coupled with a high tide and a full moon drove several feet of water into some sections of the neighborhood, flooding basements and damaging parked cars.

City planners are now poised to purchase land for a long-planned wetland park that would drain the streets on one side of the neighborhood, and provide some relief to a longstanding problem that residents say threatens their property values, their health, and their community.

The city has negotiated purchase of the land that lies to the west of Southbridge and on the south side of the Christina River. The site is under contract that is due to close in September. The project will then move into the design phase, which is expected to take about a year and a half, said Jeff Flynn, the city’s deputy director of economic development.

So far, nearly 7 million dollars has been raised for construction of the 22-acre park, which likely won’t start until 2015 and is expected to take another 18 months to complete, Flynn said. One million dollars is coming from the city’s capital plan, while the remainder is from a state grant and the state’s land conservation loan program.

When it’s done, the wetland park will hopefully prevent flooding at three or four of the seven Southbridge locations that have been identified by city engineers as being especially prone to flooding.

The city’s plans were presented last month at a meeting of the Southbridge Civic Association that was attended by about 40 people including Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams, City Council member Hanifa Shabazz and State Representative James Johnson.

Shabazz told the meeting that she recognizes both the longstanding nature of the flooding problem and the need to find a solution to it soon.

“We understand the urgency,” she said. “We are not just going to talk about it.”

But she warned that the wetlands park and other projects that would divert floodwaters away from the neighborhood may not address the more serious problem of long-term sea-level rise, to which low-lying areas such as south Wilmington are especially vulnerable.

“There are some things that can be done but there are other things that can’t be done,” she said.

In the face of rising seas—which state officials say could inundate up to 11 percent of Delaware’s land mass by 2100—neighborhoods such as Southbridge may need to consider simply relocating, she said.

“Do we need a displacement plan?” she asked. “We’ve already got that in our minds.”

But relocation in the face of rising waters—one of a number of long-term “adaptation” strategies that are being considered by state officials—is particularly problematic in poor communities like Southbridge, said Kevin Adkin, a University of Delaware graduate student who has studied the community and its vulnerability to sea-level rise.

“Almost nobody is willing to give up their home,” Adkin told WDDE. “Where could you even begin to move them to?”

The City of Wilmington’s Flynn predicted the wetlands park will “go a long way” to solving the existing flooding problem but he acknowledged that it doesn’t address sea-level rise, which could require a more radical response.

“This stuff isn’t going to stop sea-level rise,” Flynn told WDDE after the meeting. “That’s when you get into dikes.”

A report from Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control last year said rising seas are a particular threat to Southbridge’s neighbor, the Port of Wilmington. The report predicted that 128 acres, or 59 percent, of the port’s core property would be inundated if seas rise by one meter, DNREC’s central scenario by the end of the century.

The report also said poor populations like that in Southbridge, home to about 2,000 people, are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise because they have less money for flood defenses such as elevating houses, and may be reluctant to move in the face of rising waters.

The Wilmington Area Planning Council has identified the neighborhood—where about a third of the people live at or below the federal poverty line—as an “Environmental Justice Area” and gives it a “high” rating in its “Social Vulnerability Index.”

Southbridge resident Jackson Grimes said flood waters have yet to enter his house but he has been evacuated from the neighborhood twice in the four years that he has lived there—first for Hurricane Irene in 2011 and again for Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. On each occasion, he has spent up to two days living in a local high school.

Grimes, 42, fears the city’s latest plan will be too late to prevent more flooding, and that could spell financial ruin for himself and many of his low-income neighbors. The latest predictions for an active Atlantic hurricane season suggest the neighborhood will be flooded again in coming months, he said, well before the wetland park is even designed.

“We have to do something now or people like me who are very poor are going to lose everything we’ve got,” he told the meeting.

Bryan Lennon, assistant director of the City of Wilmington’s water division, told the meeting that Southbridge’s flooding problem is the result of a combined flow of storm water and sanitary waste overwhelming drainage pipes, coupled with high tides and storm surges creating an “overland” flow of water.

It’s made worse by tide gates that automatically prevent the outflow of waste water into the nearby Christina River when the river rises during storms, causing neighborhood drains to back up, he said.

“When the river rises, it stops the combined sewer flow from going to the river,” Lennon said. “The tide gates are doing their job but they don’t let the flow out.”

Short-term solutions include re-inspecting sewers and clearing them if necessary, repeating a process that began in 2005; establishing a call center for residents to notify the city of any flooding or sewer blockages, and installing backflow valves that would prevent wastewater backing up into people’s houses, he said.

Asked whether public health was being put at risk by backed-up sanitary waste, Lennon urged residents to “minimize contact” with it.

“There is a hazard as you would expect in handling any sanitary waste,” he said.

In another attempt to divert flood waters away from the neighborhood, work is scheduled to begin in May on cleaning out a ditch alongside nearby railroad tracks, said Susan Love, a planner with DNREC, and a leading voice in Delaware’s work on sea-level rise.

Mayor Williams rejected a call for more city money to address flooding in Southbridge, and urged residents to seek further funding from the state.

“I can’t make another commitment here tonight until I know what the engineers are planning,” he said.