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Posted April 25, 2004
Aubrey's Notebook:
Who gets blame for 2004 flood damage?

At the Town Branch Neighborhood Association's meeting April 21, Don Hoodenpyle, who owns property west of 11th Street and adjacent to its intersections with South Hill Avenue and South Duncan Ave. asked Hank Broyles whether his development plans in the northern, upstream part of the neighborhood would take into account the possibility of a 6-inch rain.

That was Wednesday night and not much rain had fallen by that time, but more was predicted. Broyles wasn't the only one in the crowd in the Fellowship Hall of the Hill Avenue Church of Christ who didn't expect to see a lot more than 6 inches of rain in a short time.

By 4 a.m. Saturday, April 24, however, water was rushing well above the bridge at 11th Street between South Hill Ave. and South Duncan Ave. In fact, a strip of more than 75 feet by 200 feet of Hoodenpyle's east lawn was under water. That water was also cutting across the back lawn of Larry Smith's house and many others downstream along the Town Branch of the West Fork of the White River.

Water was backed up within 1 foot of the foundation of the home of Stanley Sullins and there was a threatening pool of swirling water in the yard of Herman Swafford as well as that of his neighbor to the north, Mitch Woody. Although those two homes are on the west side of the 1200 block of South Duncan Avenue, a small arm of the Town Branch runs between them.

That little channelized creek drains many acres between 11th and 15th streets, including the yards of all the homes along the west side of South Duncan, the Shady Lane Mobile-Home Park, the bulk of the property of the former Campbell Soup cannery on 15th Street near Razorback Road and a portion of Rochier Hill.

A small amount of water may enter from the now empty 11th Street Mobile-Home Park and a 2-acre parcel of prairie wetland west of 1101-1121 S. Duncan currently owned by James Mathias. Water on these two wetland areas overflows to the branch between the Woody and Swafford homes only when huge amounts of rain falls.

Mostly, those two wetland areas are covered by hydric (water-absorbing) soil that allows storm water to soak in and enter the shallow underground aquifer that parallels the Town Branch of the West Fork of the White River. They cleanse and release the water the natural, slow way.

The Town Branch, which begins along a ridge on West Cleveland Street at the northwest corner of the UA campus and drains two mountain sides and most of the University of Arkansas facilities near Razorback Road all the way to Sixth Street, Fayetteville High School and the parking lots of businesses along Sixth Street, has flooded a bit worse in past years. However, there were no developments planned in the watershed between Sixth Street and 12th Street the last time it happened. And several acres of new pavement and buildings already have been added to the UA campus. Every paved or roofed square inch increases downstream flooding. Every extra vehicle that travels the watershed increases pollution. Every shopper and student increases litter. Every shovel load of red dirt or other heavily compacted fill material placed in the watershed speeds runoff.

Once the soil is saturated, any heavy downpour can cause a flash flood. That's what happened after 3 a.m. Saturday. The rain came fast and there was nowhere for it to go but downhill.

Wednesday, the day of the neighborhood meeting, a crew with heavy machinery from the Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation scraped out a lot of silt beneath the 15th Street bridge over the Town Branch between Ellis and Van Buren avenues, a seeming life-saver for the Town Branch neighborhood, where the flooding could have been much worse had the water been impeded at 15th Street. As it was, the stream flowed over the street for a short time but didn't entirely stop traffic there as it did on 11th Street.

That was good news in the upper watershed of the Town Branch. However, it simply compounded a problem that develped Friday a few miles downstream.

No one knew just how high the water would get after it rushed down the Town Branch to the West Fork east of Happy Hollow Road and then into the main White River north of Arkansas 16 where water was gathering from many streams. The worst was feared by Friday, however, by some people near the White River in and near Goshen. Homeowners were sandbagging the area around numerous expensive houses built there in the past decade.

Saturday, local media outlets had a big story to share: flooding of homes built near the White River at the upper end of Beaver Lake, mostly within the past decade.

Now, the University of Arkansas can't take all the blame for developing its campus without concern for potential downstream flooding. Individual businesses can't be blamed just because their existence contributes to the speed of runoff along the whole south side of Fayetteville, not only from the campus but from parts of the city west and east of the campus all the way north to Maple Street.

Individual developers can't be blamed because they aren't required to understand land and water and how their work can contribute to flooding. City planning division employees can't be blamed because they can only require a few minor concessions from developers to prevent flooding. The City Council members can't be blamed because they can't get elected if they don't expedite growth. The mayor can't be blamed because he can't possibly take note of all the issues involved in the growth of the city and must focus on increasing the tax base by promoting growth at a rate at least as fast as that of other cities in the area.

County planners can't be blamed because the Quorum Court hasn't passed adequate regulations to give them the power to see that farming and development in the rural areas don't damage water quality or contribute to flooding.

Justices of the Peace can't be blamed because they are elected to the Quorum Court by people who have their own ideas of how government should function regardless of the realities of life in an area of rapidly increasing population. JPs aren't required to understand the issues, just to vote on them. Voting correctly is voting the wishes of the most powerful or vocal portion of their constituency, regardless of right or wrong.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers can't be blamed because federal storm-water regulations allow so many exceptions that denying a permit to dredge and fill wetland, which is blamed for most flooding, is almost impossible because the exceptions and diverse ways of meeting the minimum requirements mean that best-management practices of Storm Water II regulations are all but ignored.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency can't be blamed because it provided the Storm-Water II regulations to the public several years before they were to go into force and lacks the manpower to enforce the rules, which are mostly a common-sense approach to preventing flooding and pollution of our waterways.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality can't be blamed because it follows a policy of its managing commission of approving whatever the Corps of Engineers approves without even visiting construction sites.

The people who built and sold the houses in the White River basin can't be blamed. They must know how to buy property, build on it and sell it. They are not required to understand the effect of what they do.

Developers hire engineers, architects and workers to meet the minimum requirements of the storm-water regulations of the federal, state, county and city governments. They aren't required to consider the safety or security of people downstream. They simply have to follow the letter of the law and satisfy potential customers.

The bankers who finance the houses can't be blamed. Their job is to help people buy houses and to see that a steady income is provided to their investors. They don't have to understand how water flows or that maximum rain amounts appear to be increasing gradually in recent years.

They don't even have to realize that providing funding for buildings in such places as the wooded and prairie wetland of the Town Branch watershed between Sixth and 12th streets may actually cause danger and damage to others whom they have helped to build homes further downstream in the West Fork or White River watersheds.

The schools can't be blamed. They have to prepare their students to succeed or at least meet minimum standards on limited testing of basic academic standards. Practical matters such as paying attention to the weather report, understanding the lay of the land and the way water flows downhill probably aren't even mentioned on the standardized tests. Is geography even mentioned in current educational standards? And do they talk about respecting the needs and concerns of others or just about preparing to earn money?

Can the news media be blamed? They are geared only to report. Journalists are taught that their responsibility is to report what happens. The old-fashioned idea of a local newspaper as the guardian of the community is no longer a respected goal. Gathering and reporting information is all that counts with some media outlets. The limits of news judgment are set by the limits of a given journalist's level of education and experience. The emphasis on leading the community has been replaced by an emphasis on following the community's lead.

The media have given small amounts of air time and print space to outlining the federal and state regulations concerning storm-water management. But they have given much greater attention to the growth of population in the area and the desire of political entities to encourage and to profit from growth. Unlike earlier generations of journalists, today's writers and broadcasters don't have much background hunting or fishing or farming or watching birds or wildlife or even of living or working in unair-conditioned buildings or having to depend directly on the soil or outdoor air or water from wells or springs. They swim in pools of treated water. They drink treated water. They bathe in treated water. They breath filtered air indoors most of the time. They don't cut firewood. They get all their food from stores.

They have no idea why people settled in the Ozark Mountains. They just know that many people are now coming here for high-paying, even high-tech jobs and that even more people are coming here for extremely low-paying jobs. They buy into the idea that unplanned, uncontrolled growth is necessary because it provides the tax base to pay for the infrastructure to meet the needs of the people who come here to make the area grow. They don't question why. They don't look for the end of the mindless circle.


The program known as No Child Left Behind should make sure that no child is pushed into an unthinking future without an understanding of the past.

Who can we blame?

The answer is simple: We all share the blame. If we remove vegetation or the original topsoil from our land in the watershed, we increase potential flooding while decreasing the ability of nature to decrease pollution of both water and air. If we don't take our kids outdoors and explain where food and clean air and water come from, we set them up to continue the mistakes of the current generation. If we don't see that they are taught the meaning of the balance of nature, we set them up to upset that balance beyond redemption.

Not all couples are prepared to provide all this knowledge to their children simply because they haven't acquired all of it themselves. However, the information is available in libraries, on the Internet and even on television, radio and in newspapers.

Maybe not every youngster can perform like a genius in mathematics, English or science, but understanding and adapting to nature are things every person who survived to reproduce on earth for hundreds of generations had to be able to do. Why should coming generations be less able than their forebears?

We must make certain our progeny are better educated than we are if they are to have lives of the quality we have had.

For more on issues such as management of storm water, please visit the Internet links at right.

For more on Fayetteville, Arkansas, issues, please visit

Floodwater photos

Town Branch



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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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