Mother Nature has impeccable timing. Just a couple of weeks before newly elected Rome City Commissioners were to be sworn in, some eight inches of rain fell on Rome and North Georgia raising Rome’s three rivers to heights not seen since the 1990s.
It was as if she was casting her own ballot on the issue that motivated Rome voters in the November election, leading to the removal of one long-time city commissioner and the election of two new commissioners.
That issue, of course, is whether or not a large tract of city-owned floodplain and wetlands surrounding Burwell Creek and adjacent to Riverside Parkway should be filled and developed into a strip mall dubbed “City Center.”
The rain that fell lifted the Oostanaula River to nearly 30 feet—the biggest flood since March 1990. Floodwater spilled out of the river’s banks, covering Ridge Ferry Park, and creeping into the fields, pastures and yards of property owners in low-lying areas. Thankfully, there was limited serious property damage.
If not for Rome’s levee system and the dams at Carters and Allatoona lakes, it could have been much worse.
As for the city’s Burwell Creek property, it filled as did the rest of the area’s still undeveloped floodplain. If not for these places, it could have been much worse.
How much water does the 50 acres of floodplain adjacent to Burwell Creek hold? Lots. During the peak of the flood, portions of the proposed City Center development site were under at least 14 feet of water. By conservative estimates, the area held more than 130 million gallons of water at that flood level—enough to fill nearly 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
And, this flood was by no means the “big one.” During Rome’s worst flood on record, the Oostanaula topped out at 40 feet, and even since the construction of Carters Dam upstream in 1977, the Oostanaula has reached above 30 feet three times.
In fact, the Burwell Creek floodplain begins filling at river elevations of just 16 feet, a high water mark that happens regularly. Since 2009, the Burwell Creek floodplain has filled on at least 50 occasions.
Remember, this is the very place hometown developers Ledbetter Properties want to build a strip mall. To keep their retail center dry, they’ll have to fill those 50 acres with at least 20 feet of dirt. Once built, floodwater will instead be routed to giant holding ponds adjacent to the retail center.
Will these holding ponds protect us during the “big one?” if engineered on a grand scale correctly, presumably so.
However, the better question to ask is: should the city support and even finance this engineering when it could preserve the property and the important services it provides that were so clearly illustrated during the “Holiday Flood of 2015.”
In November, Rome voters sent a clear message to the City Commission with more than 60 percent of the vote cast in support of preserving this land. An online poll performed by the Rome News-Tribune following the election showed 85 percent support for preserving “Rome’s Central Park.” Even developers that last September were considering building an apartment complex overlooking Burwell Creek have now cast their lot elsewhere.
Though Mother Nature has cast her vote, she doesn’t have the final say. Only the Rome City Commission can prevent the destruction of the city’s Burwell Creek floodplain and wetlands. If the election results didn’t speak to them, perhaps the flood did.
Chad Johnfroe, President
CRBI Board of Directors