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Levees, Dry Land Downtown

Rome News-Tribune Column Pierre Rene Noth Jan. 27, 2013

One can't blame the Coosa River Basin Initiative folks for doing what they sometimes seem best at: Staging a publicity stunt. 

With the Oostanaula River rising above its 19-foot bank — full stage for the first time in two years and backing up waters into Burwell Creek, the CRBI’s familiar kayak armada took to the waters piling up around the tiny creek where Ledbetter Properties is planning a new major shopping center covering about 60 acres. It was the first time in two years the armada could put to sea there again.

The CRBI point, as usual: Save this in-town undeveloped land opposite Ridge Ferry Park, with its only somewhat polluted creek and old landfill flooded but once in a while, as a playground for birds, bees, mosquitoes, snakes, kayakers and whatever.

It does make for a nifty picture, much like CRBI’s “mussel hats,” if one forgets perspective and fact. No Coosa Basin mussel grows large enough to cover an environmentalist’s head; Burwell Creek could not float a matchbox were it not for the levee directly opposite that forces floodwaters into it. The mouth of Burwell lines up with levee-protected West 10th Street. 

If the levee was not there, most of that Burwell Creek water would have helped fill up the first floor of Floyd Medical Center and a lot of other stuff now on acreage snug and dry and creating business, jobs, money, local taxes. Why, there’s even another new shopping center under construction there in what used to be one of Rome’s several major floodplains. The area shaded in purple on the accompanying map is what’s now protected …  and usable.

 

The CRBI does many, many worthwhile things and advocates for many, many wise things in its quest to protect both our river basin and general environment. Many such projects and positions have our support, even enthusiasm, and will continue to receive both. The group holds its annual meeting tomorrow — many happy returns of the day to guiding light Joe Cook and the Coosa’s many allies, and may low-flush toilets and water-sampling kits be in all the birthday boxes.

However, when it comes to Burwell Creek and CRBI’s fight, stall, legal maneuvering to stop it — quite reminiscent of the Rollins family tactics regarding the U.S. 411 Connector — it is just flat-out wrong.

Perhaps taking an imaginary kayak tour would be of some assistance to gain the correct perspective, though bicycles would be more suitable nowadays for the sites involved. However, in another time the use of kayaks would have been appropriate.

Let’s put our mental kayak into the waters just about at the intersection of Turner McCall Boulevard and Hicks Drive, although old aerial photos show the area now occupied by Etowah Crossing shopping center similarly imitating Burwell Creek at high tide. The Etowah River is up and overflowing its high banks. There are no protective levees there, floods typically only occurring when the Oostanaula is running so high that it acts as sort of a liquid dam holding back the Etowah’s substantial flow and backing it up. 

 

At that location, Riverbend shopping center is now in busy operation after the land was graded and raised above flood stage (by the Ledbetters) after Rome’s first indoor mall at that location was flooded with fish and snakes intent on window shopping among the clothing racks during a high-water period.

As we paddle by the many stores with their employees, customers, tax revenues — and the medical complex there now as well — we put the prow of our kayak into the Etowah itself. Floating just a short way, we could turn onto Second Avenue at flood periods in times past but a short portage might have been required until about East Fifth Street where it would then be possible to kayak on to Broad Street. First Avenue, of course, was already a good place to fish for bass.

However, preferring to stay afloat we paddle on to where the Etowah reaches Broad Street. Since we are wearing a life jacket the four-story depth of the waters doesn’t worry us too much although the swirling power to two rivers fighting for dominance at the confluence with the Coosa can get a bit scary.

Then on up Broad, not yet filled in and raised as it was after the big flood of 1886. Waving at all the diners sitting outside the many restaurants in their wet suits and scuba gear, let’s continue on and turn toward and then over the Oostanaula at about Fourth Avenue, as the 90-foot paddleboat did back in the flood that hit 40.3 feet. That’s about 21 feet higher than the current bank-full flood alert level for the Oostanaula. There’s a sign marking the 1886 high-water level on the Third Street side of the Rome Area History Museum on what is now the first floor of the building and used to be the second. 

 

Passing by Barron Stadium on our left — part of the stands and the light poles are about all that is left to see — one is now floating above the 227-acre area, once the incorporated City of DeSoto, that is today protected by 1.85 miles of diking without a Dutch boy in sight. 

It was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for $391,080 and dedicated in 1939 as H.H. Keel Levee System (Homer Hiram Keel was the Rome City Commission chairman who pushed the project). The levee averages 18 feet high, 10 feet wide on top with a 100-foot base. It was built to withstand crests up to 42 feet or 17 feet above the official flood stage of 25 feet or what was  just barely touched by the flooding this past week.

From here to where the parks authority headquarters (old Marine Armory) and American Legion now are, from the Heritage Bridge at Second Avenue to just short of where Little Dry Creek enters the Oostanaula off Martha Berry Boulevard, all this used to flood almost annually. The brave ones who lived there did so in houses built upon stilts, as on the Outer Banks, and kept flatboats moored to them so they could pole their way to work in high water.

Look at all of bustling Broad Street and this former floodplain now — high, dry and wall-to-wall enterprises, jobs, housing. In fact, it is the center and economic heart of Rome. Flood all of it from Riverbend to just short of Midtown Crossing, swallowing downtown and FMC in process, and how many people then live in this community, how many jobs are there, how much in profits and taxes and even entertainment/dining options? 

 

Not very much, which is exactly the point to be made about Burwell Creek’s lower portion. The Ledbetters want to grade it, raise it, contour the creek area to contain it, bring in a half dozen major new stores plus extras with names of the sort most Greater Roman long have wished for, create maybe 1,000 new jobs and expand the core of Rome to where it logically would go. It’s not as though central Rome doesn’t already have a load of green space.

City Center at the Burwell “floodplain” would add roughly 60 acres to the probably more than 400 acres that Rome has already raised/protected/saved from constant flooding and turned into the sort of center of commerce that turned an 1886 hamlet into today’s Metropolitan Statistical Area. That is what large central cities serving a wide area always do — beef up their core, turn wasteland into business activity.

Indeed, historians tell us that there are three creeks entirely buried beneath Broad Street and the Historic Between the Rivers District … along with the fresh-water spring that led to Rome’s original founding. 

If CRBI needs a close-to-town rescue project this badly, minus kayak ability, it might turn its attention to the upper reaches of Burwell Creek that drain industrial areas, a heavy equipment junkyard and similar.

 

Enthusiasms and interests are, it is said, created by whatever floats your boat ... or kayak. The continued prosperity and growth of Rome floats ours in the downtown area whereas, in such ignored beauty spots as Armuchee Creek, it would better float our own CRBI tendencies.

Read more: RN-T.com - COLUMN Levees dry land downtown 

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