MWA knows how to fix south Bibb flooding, but here’s why it still may take years

The Macon Water Authority’s project in Nowell Estates could have been shelved if not for negotiations with Army Corps of Engineers


Liz Fabian

Macon Water Authority executives review plans to correct flooding problems in south Bibb County near Nowell Estates.

Flooding woes have plagued south Bibb County residents for decades, and although a drainage plan is now in place, it still may take another couple of years to implement a solution to correct the drainage issues.

“Naturally, if you look at the topography, it’s a bathtub,” said Daniel Cheek, an engineer with HHNT, a civil and environmental engineering consulting firm the authority hired to study south Bibb’s drainage.

In keeping with Cheek’s bathtub analogy, two problems were flooding the people of Nowell Estates and on down toward Liberty Church Road. Not only was the tub drain clogged from years of neglect, but the drainpipe was too small.

Cheek has engineered a way to control the water, slow the flow and keep it from spilling out of the tub into people’s yards.

His firm’s plans call for speeding up drainage by using concrete to replace the grass and dirt of current ditches that not only slows flow, but can wash away and create clogs.

In a tour of south Bibb County in 2021, Macon-Bibb Commissioner Bill Howell said drainage ditches like this one around the Nowell Estates subdivision are not adequate to move stormwater out of the neighborhood. (Liz Fabian)

Two retention ponds will allow the water to gradually drain and not create flooding downstream. Cheek’s model slows the water flow from 127 million gallons per day to 45.

Although it’s a relatively simple fix, the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers, rules about wetlands, and the need for the Macon Water Authority to acquire property access are slowing down implementation of the solution.

The Authority inherited this development design disaster when it agreed to take over stormwater responsibilities from Macon-Bibb County as of 2021.

In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency levied $145,000 in fines against the county following an inspection that noted 21 stormwater violations across the county. A 2016 study showed the stormwater system was “severely degraded and at risk for failure.”

While crumbling infrastructure in the oldest parts of Macon is one issue, south Bibb’s problems spring from residential growth in the late 80s when developments were not as closely scrutinized for runoff.

Michel Wanna, MWA’s Executive Vice President of Plant and Field Operations, said it’s all about the lay of the land.

“It’s flat,” Wanna said recently. “It was farmland, for God’s sake. You see from one plateau to another is like a straight table. This is the problem we have.”

Wanna laid out the plans for the project on a conference table in his office during a meeting with The Macon Newsroom, Cheek, and MWA Executive Director Ron Shipman.

Army Corps of Engineers’ role

Because it was a relatively simple project, Cheek only expected the Army Corps of Engineers to do a desktop review of the plans and grant approval in fairly short order.

The Corps oversees floodplain management and regulates the nation’s policy of “no net loss” of wetlands. Since 1600, the country has lost more than half of its wetlands, so the Corps seeks to minimize environmental impacts of construction and dredging.

Engineer Daniel Cheek briefs the Macon Water Authority at its June meeting on pending stormwater improvements to the Nowell Estates area in south Bibb County. (Facebook screenshot)

Cheek said he had to submit a permit application for minor impacts to the Corps’ jurisdictional features in the Nowell Estates neighborhood. Because the expected disturbance of wetlands is under a half-acre, Cheek could apply for a what is called a general nationwide permit instead of a more comprehensive, individual 404 permit that requires much more documentation for the Corps to review and approve.

In the authority’s pledge for transparency with neighbors who felt their flooding issues had been neglected too long, Wanna explained in recent months that one of the delays was awaiting Corps approval.

South Bibb County residents anxious to speed up the process reached out to the Corps directly, but they ultimately delayed it further and almost shelved the project indefinitely.

Cheek said the public input likely prompted the Corps to visit the site instead of doing the simple desktop review. That visit led to further discussions, debate and negotiations over the assessment of the project, and how it falls under the regulations that govern wetlands.

To mitigate the Corps’ initial classification of the existing drainage ditch would have priced the project out of reach for now, said MWA executives.

Although Wanna and Cheek said they would have preferred if homeowners left it to the professionals instead of getting directly involved, Cheek said he understood their desire to have their concerns heard by knowledgable people who have the power to fix it.

“Because people had an ear, and after 30 years of getting nothing, I think they thought they got somebody listening to them that’s going to do it,” Cheek said.

Although it has taken months to study and assess the drainage issues, Wanna said this “small job” typically would not have drawn further scrutiny from the Corps.

Shipman agreed.

“My understanding, this wasn’t even a blip on their radar,” Shipman said.

In the June authority meeting, Macon-Bibb Commissioner Bill Howell, who represents the county on the authority, urged impatient and frustrated neighbors to not jeopardize the project.

“There are hundreds of people that this project affects not only in Nowell Estates but below,” Howell said at the Authority’s June meeting when Cheek gave his report.  “We can’t afford the loss of time, the expense in money or anything else and I just admonish everybody to let the professionals do their job and not insert your opinion because that could cost everybody.”

In his application to the Corps, Cheek asserted that trenches that obviously were mechanically or hand dug off Francis Drive were stormwater drainage ditches that fell outside the Corps’ jurisdiction of natural waters.

“We did not call anything a stream,” Cheek told the authority at its June meeting. “Everything was listed as a wetland, and our total impacts were under a threshold which triggers mitigation for those credits.”

The corps originally designated the ditches as intermittent streams, which would have required more than $1.5 million in mitigation credits, Cheek said.

To correct the drainage issues, MWA will adversely affect a wetland, so the Authority must pay to maintain a wetland somewhere else.

Anyone can buy up, preserve and bank wetlands and sell credits to those disturbing other wetlands. Those credits can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars depending on demand.

After the site visit, Cheek went back and forth with the Corps and presented his argument based on the classification history of the Savannah District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Historically, ditches that were dug to drain wetlands have to be considered wetlands, not streams. And ultimately the Corps agreed with us on that point, which was phenomenal,” Cheek explained to the board.

The Corps’ ultimate agreement on the designation of a linear wetland – in this case a manmade ditch – will cost MWA $66,000 to mitigate, and ultimately saved the project.

Had they had to pay at least $1.5 million, Wanna said they would not have been able to proceed until they could come up with the money. 

Millions in stormwater fees unpaid

The $4.99 per month the authority implemented in 2022 for residential customers and larger fees generated by industries and businesses only goes so far.

“So every increase – even though it’s $66,000 – every increase of any project that we got in stormwater, we’ve got to bump it against the $4.99,” Shipman said. “When we heard about this increase, the first thing I asked was, ‘Well, what does this do for the project?’ Because that’s where we are.”

A whirlpool of stormwater catches trash in a drain during a summer thunderstorm in 2020. Beginning in 2022, stormwater management fees were levied in Macon-Bibb County for residents, businesses, industries and churches. (Liz Fabian)

In 2021, MWA opted not to charge any fees for its first year in the stormwater management business and borrowed several million from the Authority to fund the operation, which is budgeted separately.

Not only does the stormwater division have to repay that loan, but accountants recently noted that 60% of its stormwater-only customers have not paid their bills for a variety of reasons.

Stormwater-only customers are those who have wells and septic tanks and don’t require water or sewer service but instead get billed twice a year for $29.94, or six times the monthly stormwater fee.

One problem with collections is tracking property owners through public records of the tax assessor’s office that might not be updated immediately after property sales. In other cases, the property owner is not the one responsible for utility payments.

Stormwater-only compliance also is an issue because the Authority is not providing water to those customers, so it can’t disconnect service for non-payment.

Another issue stems from different tax characteristics for larger businesses and schools.

Some larger companies with multiple facilities, like AT&T and Georgia Power, might lump all their properties into one account which makes it difficult to calculate square footage and billing for their impervious surface at each location, Wanna said.

“One place, they owe us $100,000 a year and we’re getting zero. So, you’re looking at probably a couple million dollars,” Wanna told the board. “That’s the problem. You have universities here, I’m not going to name them, they’re paying zero. It’s a problem.”

Wanna said the shortfall is one reason the authority looks at every project very closely.

“We have to prioritize the priority because the money, we were figuring out we’re not having the full money,” Wanna said.

Stormwater is budgeted to pull in $9.4 million, but Wanna said they’re looking at “$6 million and some change.”

The $4.99 fee that was implemented in January of 2022 will hold for three years. In 2025, the fee jumps to $5.25 for at least two years, under the original rate plan.

What’s next for Nowell Estates

In his mid-June update to stakeholders in the project, Wanna presented a timeline for the project so the public can see the next steps.

MWA’s timeline for stormwater improvements near Nowell Estates in south Bibb County.

Until October, the authority is negotiating with a half-dozen property owners for required easements as the surveying and plat preparation occurs.

Cooperation from those neighbors will speed the process.

MWA will not be buying property, but instead get the right to come onto the property, with notice, to maintain those stormwater features.

Wanna fears the authority will have to move toward condemnation of properties if owners reject the fair market value for the easements.

If Eminent Domain condemnations are needed, the timeline for the necessary attorneys’ negotiations and court cases is projected to be up to two years. Through a legal process, the government has the power to take land needed for public projects, even if the property owner does not wish to sell or agree to an easement.

After that, there’s four months allotted for zoning and site plan permitting, and another four months for bidding for contractors, and about a year’s worth of construction.

Cheek and Wanna estimate the project could be finished as soon as spring of 2025, or into 2027 if condemnation is needed.

In the short term, MWA has already improved drainage by unclogging ditches that hadn’t been maintained by Bibb County in prior years.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Bill Howell shows a south Bibb County deer stand partially submerged after heavy rain in October of 2021. (Liz Fabian)

Many improvements have been made since Oct. 6 of 2021, when a record rainfall of 3.06 inches led to 121 flooding calls.

Howell’s phone started ringing at 6:30 a.m. with folks calling from the “choke point” on the south end of the county.

Since that time, MWA’s new vacuum trucks and other heavy equipment have been removing tons and tons of debris from storm drains.

Places such as Glen Haven Memorial Gardens are no longer consistently flooding.

“In the three years we’ve had stormwater, they’ve been seeing progressive improvement, small as it may be, because now the area is not flooding on a regular basis,” Shipman said. “It’s just very intermittent, so we’re not getting the calls.”

A typo in the original article has been corrected to reflect the country has lost half its wetlands since 1600. Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Jarvis Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.