Technology helps city manage stormwater system

Delvontie Lucas and Jose Valdovinos, crew leaders for the city of Wilson's environmental services division, construct a trash trap Monday. The city will place four of the traps in area streams to collect trash and debris while letting the water flow downstream.

Wilson is using technology, some engineering and old-fashioned public education in hopes of tackling localized flooding and other stormwater issues.

“In a hurricane, you will get some sort of idea how long the storm will be in our area, how much rain it will bring, but for a typical storm, we don’t know if we’ll get 3 inches in four hours or what,” said Noah Parsons, Wilson stormwater compliance specialist. “If we get an inch over four hours, it is not a big deal, but if we can get an inch of rain in five minutes, it is a big deal. It just depends on what nature throws at us.”

The city’s stormwater system is built to handle moderate storms considered to happen every 10 years or so, but deluges and trash in area streams can cause localized flooding. City staff is working together to use drones to fly the length of Wilson’s three main waterways — the Contentnea Creek, Toisnot Swamp and Hominy Swamp.

“Flying over the creek, we are able to see all the blockages more efficiently than walking every mile of the stream,” Parsons said. “All these photos from the drone are geo-located, so we’ll have an exact location we can put in a database and develop a plan to get them removed.”

The city started using the drone last month and anticipate finishing in the coming weeks. Crews recently cleared a blockage on Hominy Swamp in the culvert under Ralston Street, removing roughly 630 pounds of trash and debris.

“We had TVs, tires and cups,” Parsons said. “I’ve seen washers and dryers, shopping carts. It is really sad to see what makes it out there.”

While some trash is discarded directly into the streams, Parsons said a bottle thrown out a car window into a field can end up going down gutters into the pipes or into streams when a storm hits. In an effort to clean up some of the trash, the city will soon have four employee-built trash traps that’ll float in streams — including the Ralston Street culvert — and collect debris while allowing the water to flow.

“We’re part of SWANC, the Stormwater Association of North Carolina, and talked with another municipality who had experimented with this, so we’re the second municipality to kick this off,” Parsons said. “However, they only operate one and we’re about to operate four here.”

The design built by High Point staff was tweaked and improved by Wilson employees. The first trap was installed around September, but staff has improved it even more and is building three this week.

“After every storm, we clear it out,” he said. “Typically if there is no storm, the water is not moving enough, but once the rain cleans out all the ditches, give it a couple days and the trap will be full.”

Parsons said public education and participation can make a huge difference. Residents who see downed trees blocking a creek or debris piling up in gutters can report the issues by calling 252-296-3305 or using the Fix-It Wilson app for mobile devices.

“There are a lot of people who have nice grass or something, so they don’t want to pile leaves on their lawn while they wait for Environmental Services to pick it up, but from a safety and stormwater perspective, it should not be put in the street,” he said. “It can cause drivers to swerve and if there are sticks in the leaves and there is a storm, that stick can end up in the pipes and cause clogs and lead to bigger issues.”

The city also organizes the Adopt-A-Street and Adopt-A-Stream programs that recruit groups to volunteer to clean up trash.

“The Adopt-A-Street program helps prevent that trash to get to the stream while the Adopt-A-Stream program responds to the trash that has made it to the stream and cleans it up,” Parsons said. “We have all the equipment a group would need and we’ll provide pickup of the trash once it is all bagged up.”

In 2019, the city launched a rain barrel program that was well received with nearly 200 barrels sold to residents in the city and county. While a few have already been sold to residents calling the department this year, it will officially kick off again at the Wilson Chamber of Commerce’s Spring Expo where the first 20 city residents wanting a barrel will pay half-price for one at $32.50 and be able to take it home the same day.

The barrels are available for $65 normally and can be bought by calling 252-296-3305.

Rain barrels alleviate some of the water flowing into the city’s stormwater infrastructure and allow residents to use rainwater for irrigation by elevating the barrels and using a gravity-fed hose.

“It is all part of being a more efficient and greener city,” Parsons said. “Rain barrels and water cisterns won’t keep the whole system from flooding, but they can help localized situations.”