The addition of many new residential subdivisions and stricter state laws on who can and cannot clean debris out of local streams could be responsible for some of the county's recent flooding problems, officials say.
Representatives from Sumner County, Gallatin, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), U.S. Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service met recently to discuss the process of moving forward to address the problem.
Currently, the county has a permit to clear out debris and settlement under bridges that are county-owned only. Property owners can clean out stream debris as long as it is on their land, but are not allowed to use any type of backhoes or front end loaders without a permit.
To clean out streams on state-owned land or property owned by the Corps of Engineers, a permit is needed and County Executive Anthony Holt said it's not an easy process for anyone to go through.
"We cannot control what Mother Nature does, but we are trying to mitigate this (problem)," Holt said. "There is a huge buildup of gravel and debris that is altering our streams and (causing) them to overflow. This is a life and safety issue. We have a responsibility to our citizens to come up with a solution."
Flooding causes safety issues
On the morning of May 19, flash flooding led to problems across the county, with the northern area being the worst affected.
On that particular day, Ken Weidner, director of the Sumner County Emergency Management Agency, said he was watching the weather at 6:05 a.m. when the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning.
"I paged our Special Ops Team and asked them to get ready to gear up," he said.
Soon after, Weidner said he got the call that a school bus carrying 17 children was stuck in water in northern Sumner County near Portland.
"The roads were completely underwater in some places," he said. "We took three kids at a time (onto rescue boats) off the bus."
Crews later rescued a man hanging onto a tree off of Hwy 52.
Judy Hardin, roads superintendent for the county, said at one point nine roads were closed and 20 bridges in the county were unpassable; 13 of those where the approaches were washed out.
"We have over 800 bridges and box structures and in some areas where there is sediment and fallen trees in the stream, the water has nowhere to go," she said. "It's very expensive and very dangerous, not only to the residents, but to our crews and emergency crews."
Address problems first
Jimmy Smith with TDEC said one of the issues that should be studied is the amount of land throughout the county, which was once vacant, but now covered with homes. The water that once went into the ground before these subdivisions were built still has to go somewhere, he said.
"When you change something from a forest to a subdivision, it's going to have consequences," Smith said. "The key to a lot of this is understanding the causes. It will take a lot of different agencies to address it."
In addition to the bridges, Smith said another good place to start might be to address the culverts; particularly in flood prone areas and then go from there, with the state, Corps of Engineers and local municipalities working together.
Mary Lewis with the Corps of Engineers said her agency could provide the county with technical assistance and offer some options, as well as suggestions on permitting.
With water rescues and multiple homes suffering water damage, Holt said the problem needs to be addressed sooner than later.
"It really needs to be pieced together to come up with a logical plan to benefit all of us," Holt said. "The cost of doing nothing is too expensive."