By Jody Steinberg
It took two administrations, two neighborhoods, $2 million, six years, more than 10 organizations and countless flooded homes to make it happen, but the Drew Valley Stormwater Management Facility is finally finished.
It was dedicated with fanfare and speeches July 28 in a ceremony on Drew Valley Road, Ground Zero for the flooding that threatened to destroy the close-knit community of modest ranch homes built around the curves of Poplar Creek in the 1950s.
For residents who traded flooded basements and stopped-up culverts for green spaces and wild life, the dedication was cause for celebration.
“This is probably the nicest-looking drainage facility in the county,” DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Keith Barker said of the 1.6-acre detention pond, a reclaimed flood plain that was once the site of five homes. Designers addressed neighbors’ aesthetic concerns, incorporating stonework and decorative wood and metal fencing.
“We impacted wetlands and streams, and we had to return the impact,” said Gregg Hudock of Golder Associates, who designed the pond to be a natural aquatic habitat. “We wanted it to blend with the environment.”
“It’s a rare piece of nature in massively overdeveloped Atlanta that reminds me of how Atlanta used to be,” musician Glenn Phillips said. He and his wife, Katie Oehler, who enjoy walking the area with their dog, are grateful for the dramatic difference the project has made.
“The flooding made living here intolerable,” said Phillips, whose home got more than 5 feet of water in one night shortly after they moved to the neighborhood from elsewhere in Brookhaven.
Phillips had publicly decried the unchecked development around him for years, calling it a developers’ “gold rush.” He blamed the county for caving to developers’ pressure and allowing the unsustainable growth and resulting devastation downstream.
“They built so much, but there wasn’t enough water retention, and the culverts were undersized. They would back up with every single storm,” he said, describing how he would clear culverts during storms and save neighbors’ homes from flooding.
“I wish the county had done more then, but they could not have done more now,” he said, calling the project a miracle of collaboration. “It’s very hard to work your way through the inertia of government, but this was government working at its most effective and most efficient.”
County Commissioner Jeff Rader credited his predecessor, Gayle Waldorp, for making it a priority for the county to solve the flooding problems in Drew Valley, which reached catastrophic proportions during a particularly wet 2003.
The county hired Dewberry & Davis to evaluate the flooding and develop a solution. That included working with the state and federal emergency management agencies to procure a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant, which funded 75 percent of the project. DeKalb provided the rest of the money.
“This detention pond is a visible manifestation of all the work that’s been done in Drew Valley,” Rader said. “With this facility, we can manage storm surges within the floodways. We’ve also increased green space throughout the neighborhood.”
At least 10 more homes were razed in the most flood-prone locations, and Rader hopes to see the community use the sites for gardens or gathering spaces.
The detention facility, designed to contain a 10-year flood incident, reduces the flow of water from Poplar Creek into the culvert by as much as 70 percent to control the influx of water in heavy rain. The project also included increasing the size and capacity of the culverts, building a headwall and floodway downstream from the pond, and creating a trail around the pond that connects Drew Valley to the Brookhaven Fields neighborhood.