Sunday, February 07, 2010

Is it safe to put your community garden in the floodplain of an urban Charlotte stream?

I visited a nearby neighborhood's beautiful garden on Saturday and marveled at the luscious winter crops amid receding floodwaters from nearby Briar Creek. The Country Club Heights community garden is in the 2900 block of Dunlavin Way, and Briar Creek runs next to it, with some open land created when homes in the floodplain were bought out by Mecklenburg County's Stormwater Services.

A neighbor from Merry Oaks saw me poking around and stopped to chat about the possibilities of a similar garden for our neighborhood, and I shared information about the garden plots available at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church last season and in the coming year. But we also brainstormed about other locations and considered the open land on Harbinger Lane in the Briar Creek floodplain, also created when homes were bought out by the county.

She raised a question, though: What about the safety of possible creek floodwaters? Are they clean or yucky? Have past floods left any heavy metals in the soil?

Luckily, we have the New York Times' amazing data from its series, "Toxic Waters," published in fall 2009. The report covers the entire country, but you can dig down to specific geographic areas. And figuring out whether your garden water and soil are clean seems to be a perfect example of news that oozes and affects you at home.

Plus, with some Googling around, some government documents are also available, but the data is often in pdf documents or is difficult to interpret. I found one strong source: The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a good mapping tool for source water assessment reports, allowing you to zoom in to specific areas and see former landfills or other possible sources of contaminants. It's likely for primary use to see what sources could flow into the city water supply, but it can give you an idea of what's in your creek water and your floodplains.

It appears that Briar Creek in Charlotte, for now, is not on North Carolina's list of "impaired waters," though much of the creek basin has an old sewer pipe slated for replacement. Other nearby creeks, like Irwin Creek, ARE on the list of "303(d)" streams, or officially impaired, if I read one government document correctly.

So the placement of the Country Club Heights garden looks ideal, on an officially "clean" creek (for now), and downstream mostly from residential areas and open park land. To be sure, residential areas can add their own fecal material from pets and pesticides and fertilizer from lawns, but I would have no qualms eating lovely veggies from the Country Club Heights garden. The county's Stormwater Services folks are planning a meeting with Country Club Heights residents at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at St. Luke United Methodist Church, 2019 Shamrock Drive, to get ideas on what to do with adjacent space.

For Merry Oaks, the decision of garden placement is trickier. Our possible plot would be downstream from the Charlotte Country Club golf course. And while golf courses have focused on becoming more conscientious in recent years, I might feel better about eating veggies from higher ground, at the St. Andrew's plots. That land is right next to Central Avenue, but water would come from the church's city water pipes.

Thoughts? Floodplain or higher ground for your neighborhood? Or do you know of more state or local data available on water quality (and flood water quality) in specific streams?

Further links
Mecklenburg County plans to update local floodplain maps. The maps are different from Federal Emergency Management floodplain maps:
WCNC video of Jan. 25 flooding along Dunlavin Way. Story erroneously calls the creek Sugar Creek. Preroll advertisement, but story shows flooding is still an issue.
Flotsam further downstream, at Briar Creek and Central Avenue,from the Jan. 25 rain.

No comments: