For a few minutes Wednesday night, Elroy Fleming said he thought he’d come to the wrong public hearing. The experts were talking about pollution in Benner Bay and surrounding areas, and he came to discuss flooding in and around Turpentine Run.
Turns out the two problems are intertwined, according to a team hired by NOAA to make an environmental assessment of the St. Thomas East End Reserves. Waters off the East End – including Mangrove Lagoon, Great Bay, Nazareth Bay, Jersey Bay, as well as Benner Bay – all receive runoff from a watershed that begins at Anna’s Retreat and includes Tutu, Bovoni, Mariendal, Nadir, Frydenhoj, Nazareth and Cabrita Point.
The team is from Horsley Witten Group, an environmental assessment and planning company out of Massachusetts. Several team members, led by senior environmental planner Anne Kitchell, were at the public hearing at the Curriculum Center in Tutu, hoping to get input from the community.
Only a handful of people attended Wednesday night, but about 15 people attended a Tuesday meeting and the team has been meeting with members of the community as it makes a field study of the watershed.
Earlier studies by the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources have found that the waters have been “impaired” by a variety of pollutants, ranging from fecal coliform and turbidity to dissolved oxygen, conditions that can lead to drastic changes in marine life and, in some cases, infections in humans.
The group listened with interest as Fleming talked about how heavy rains have frequently inundated the roadways at Tutu and Nadir and Turpentine Run, forcing traffic detours.
“We didn’t use to have flooding like this before,” Fleming said. “Runoff was slow.” But with all the development on the island’s eastern end, he said, “Now runoff is rapid.”
Fleming said, “A lot of people don’t see it because when it gets to that point, you can’t get in there.” He said only residents and people who work in the area – as he does – are fully aware of the problem.
Kitchell agreed development is a major cause of what seems to be an increase in runoff. “Every time you put in a road” or other development, “you’re short-circuiting the natural process,” she said.
Instead of seeping into the soil or being collected in natural ponds, rainwater collects on concrete, Kitchell said.
Meanwhile many residents in the watershed have hooked into the municipal water lines and stopped using the cisterns that used to trap a lot of rainwater.
Currently rain moves rapidly, collecting pollutants as it goes and dumping them into the STEER waters. Improving drainage is one way to address both the pollution and the flooding problems, Kitchell said.
The group will include a number of recommendations when it issues its report in June, she said. These may range from major projects such as installing a protective lining at the Bovoni Dump to suggestions for small changes, like encouraging residents to create “rain gardens,” shallow depressions planted with vegetation that will trap rains.
“The plan is not the end product,” Kitchell said. The end product is getting federal grant money to implement the mitigation projects by documenting the need for them.
Representatives from DPNR, the University of the Virgin Islands and the Nature Conservancy also attended the hearing. All are partners in the STEER improvement effort.