100 Year Storm 

Discussions continue about how to relieve flooding near Overton Park.


Sometimes going with the flow isn't an option.

Last spring, in an attempt to relieve flooding on Belleair, the city's engineering division proposed a controversial detention basin in Overton Park. After public outcry, they backed off, and ever since, a coalition of representatives from the city, local residents, the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association (VECA), park advocates, and the Memphis Zoo have been meeting to work out a compromise.

The current plan to address flooding now includes improvements around Poplar Avenue and widening culverts inside the park.

"That will let the flood elevation drop by 2 feet," city civil design engineer Hugh Teaford says. "When we do that, now we have all this water moving downstream, aimed right at the zoo. So we have to do something about that."

To keep the zoo from flooding, the city plans to build a 6- to 8-foot concrete wall along the north side of the greensward and divert excess storm water into the old bus lane. Though the plan shows the wall encompassing a portion of the zoo's parking lot, zoo officials have talked about having the wall hug the greensward instead.

"The current proposal would involve some degree of flooding of our parking lot, which currently doesn't flood," says Memphis Zoo CAO Jim Jalenak. "We think that's a dangerous thing. We'd like to avoid it if we could."

Though zoo attendance would likely be down during heavy rainfall, Jalenak says the portion of the lot that would flood is employee parking.

"Lick Creek has a tendency to flood rather unexpectedly," Jalenak says. "We can't always predict who is going to be here or what time of day it will happen."

Zoo flooding generally occurs in the Cat Country exhibit or the lower levels of the administration building.

"Every couple of years we have a flooding problem," Jalenak says. "Last year, we had flooding that destroyed retail goods stored near the vicinity of Lick Creek."

Jalenak expects to bring a zoo-conceived alternative to a storm water team in mid-December.

Though park advocates are quick to commend the city and the rest of the storm water coalition for continuing to work with them, the park seems to be the city's go-to solution.

"They want to push all the storm stuff into the park," says Martha Kelly, president of Park Friends. "I feel like the park is taking a hit because we've allowed overdevelopment elsewhere."

Teaford says the changes would improve conditions on the greensward during smaller rainfalls.

"If we install what we're planning to, it will be less wet with a five-year storm," Teaford says. "With a 50-year or 100-year storm, the ground is going to be wet anyhow."

Teaford says it isn't completely out of the question for the city to buy property for storm water detention, but they've never done so in the past.

"We can only install and operate bigger facilities, because we don't have the manpower to operate [multiple] small ones," he says.

And bigger projects simply need more empty space, something Midtown is woefully lacking. Because the basic problem — the one that may keep park advocates fighting the tide for years to come — is that there's nowhere for additional water to go.

"Even if they do this plan, it barely keeps our head above water," Kelly says. "The city has to get serious about enforcing storm water regulations on developers."

With developments pending upstream at Overton Square and the Mid-South Fairgrounds — both of which currently include wide swathes of parking lots — the amount of flooding downstream could increase.

Under the storm water ordinance, new developments have to include detention areas to offset storm water runoff, but there are some questions about how current levels are calculated.

"We've urbanized our environment in such a way that our storm water systems are at capacity," says Mary Wilder of VECA. "We've always given a wink and a nod to storm water ordinances, because we could. But we can't do that anymore."

The city engineers office expects to have a new storm water manual out at the beginning of the year, but Teaford says residents may need to slow the flow of rainwater with smaller, more numerous, solutions such as rain gardens.

VECA, which often floods, is using a Strengthening Communities grant to explore what neighborhood residents can do to mitigate flooding and storm water runoff, whether it's a rain garden, a rain barrel, or something else.

"It's not the park's fault," Wilder says. "The lowest basin in the creek system is the park. That's why it was donated to the city to begin with: It wasn't developable land."

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