Melissa Rooney: Better stormwater solutions

07/11/2014 12:00 AM

07/09/2014 4:40 PM

I didn’t know Durham’s Soil and Water Conservation District existed until, at an InterNeighborhood Council meeting about five years ago, Ray Eurquhart told me I should call the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) about installing a cistern, or above-ground water tank, at my kids’ elementary school.

Ray grew up in Durham’s Southside, still lives there in his retirement, and remains an active foot-soldier. For 20 years, Ray has also been a SWCD supervisor.

Through Ray, I met SWCD’s Mike Dupree, who acquired funding and held my hand throughout the cistern installation, educating me (and the kids) along the way. After teaching science and running a horticulture program at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, Mike opened For Garden’s Sake (near Fayetteville and 751 South) before leaving to join the SWCD.

Upon meeting longtime SWCD director Eddie Culberson, I immediately understood Mike’s latest move. Durham’s SWCD is composed entirely of caring, hard-working, positive and sincere environmental stewards who have Durham in their blood.

Since my first encounter, I’ve encouraged residents everywhere to seek free assistance from the SWCD regarding sustainable landscaping and available funding. But it took becoming an associate supervisor on the SWCD board of directors to understand what the SWCD actually is.

There are 3,000 conservation districts across the country, all part of the nonprofit National Association of Conservation Districts, which believes “conservation decisions should be made by local people with technical and funding assistance from federal, state and local governments and the private sector.”

Despite the high number of BMPs (“best management practices” like cisterns, rain-gardens and stream-bank restorations) the SWCD has helped residents install, until this year the city of Durham has budgeted zero dollars to the SWCD.

Historically, the city’s Stormwater Services Department, with whom SWCD’s responsibilities overlap, has declined when SWCD has offered expertise, collaboration and services. And, despite SWCD requests for partnerships, the stormwater department has actually competed with SWCD for state, federal and other grants.

I presume the stormwater department’s motivation (or lack thereof) is defensive. Any city funding for the SWCD reduces the department’s future stockpile. And the stormwater department needs that stockpile for the extensive, human-engineered solutions they always seem to be drumming up public support for. Even if the SWCD’s approach involves smaller steps (which is debatable), lots of little steps have a greater combined chance of success than a few independent jumps.

Stormwater director Paul Wiebke once told me, “Money we have, Staff we don’t.” So why not share the wealth with SWCD staff and get their boots on the ground right now?

Instead, stormwater fees are increasing over the next 5 years, raising an additional $83 million (

This year, the stormwater department contracted for Little Lick Creek’s second watershed plan in eight years. The last plan, which was developed with the Upper Neuse River Basin Authority and hasn’t been thoroughly implemented or evaluated, prioritizes Southern High School. Yet the department refused partnership in SWCD’s Stormwater Retrofit Plan for Southern. This plan would harvest rainwater to water athletic fields, which could save around $15,000/year and educate students in the process, and requires SWCD to raise $500,000, a fraction of the $1.4 million required for a new watershed plan. Meanwhile, few items have been implemented in the Third Fork Creek plan developed two to three years ago.

Last year, the city allocated a mere $10,000 for the SWCD to use toward BMP installations within city limits, but it took months for stormwater to finally approve the transfer. (Hopefully, the process is now streamlined to enable future increased city funding of SWCD.)

The free ride is not sustainable. Without city funding for SWCD, the county will have to raise its own money for stormwater retrofits, amounting to double taxation of city residents. Given that we are in the same watershed(s), stormwater management and funding should be a joint city-county effort.

At a work session last November, County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow rightly questioned collaborative efforts between the city and county to minimize duplication and costs related to stormwater management, and Assistant County Manager Cummings said they would “consider revisiting” this issue.

Instead of hiring more consultants, Durham should establish a Watersheds Improvement Committee similar to the Joint City-County Planning Committee. The mission of this committee, which would consist of city and county stakeholders (elected officials, reps from SWCD, the stormwater department, County Engineering, etc.), would be to eliminate redundancies and develop long-term, holistic approaches to storm-water management and watershed improvements throughout the city and county.

Given our impaired waterways and federal and state mandates to fix them, we can’t afford to keep doing things as we have been.

You can reach Melissa Rooney at

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