Foley prepares for environmental challenges with resilience projects

GCM Staff Report
Posted 2/2/24

In anticipation of potential hurricanes, floods and other environmental challenges, the City of Foley is proactively implementing resilience projects. Leslie Gahagan, Foley's environmental director, …

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Foley prepares for environmental challenges with resilience projects


In anticipation of potential hurricanes, floods and other environmental challenges, the City of Foley is proactively implementing resilience projects. Leslie Gahagan, Foley's environmental director, shared details of these initiatives during a presentation at the annual meeting of the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch on Jan. 27.

Gahagan emphasized that Foley has a long history of preparing for storms, but with the city's growth and the increasing potential for extreme weather events, efforts are being expanded. She highlighted the shift from traditional threats like hurricanes and floods to more diverse challenges.

“We're not just seeing those standard hurricanes and floods,” Gahagan said. “Now we're actually facing other things like extreme heat, regular winter storms, seawater intrusion into our aquifers. We're starting to see a more acute shock to our system.”

She said the city prepared watershed management plans for all the waterways in the Foley area. Each plan has to be designed for a particular stream.

“What happens in Graham Creek is definitely not the same as Wolf Creek where you have urbanization versus all conservation lands,” she said.

In addition to watershed management, the city is actively developing plans to mitigate flooding.

“We're looking at stormwater,” she said. “We're flat here in the Wolf Bay watershed. We don't have a lot of topography. We get a ton of rain. We have sea level rise. We have hurricane surges. We have blocked drainage ways where we have flood issues from multiple sources. So our flood response plan that we had developed, explained that compound flooding concern within the city of Foley and the surrounding areas and showed us what we needed to do. But that was a big plan.”

Gahagan provided an example of localized flood management efforts in the Beulah Heights community.

“We worked with the citizens in that watershed to find out what is actually happening in your watershed on a day-to-day basis,” Gahagan said. “Are you seeing flooding from blocked drainage pipes? Are you seeing flooding from the creek jumping its banks? Are you seeing problems with Riviera Utilities as a neighbor? We wanted the citizens to explain to us what they saw. We also pulled in public works groups who are going out after every rain event and fixing problems.”

She said many solutions were not complicated.

“These weren't $10-million restorations,” Gahagan said. “They were really more small-scale stuff. Dig out this ditch. Fix this culver. It makes it a lot easier to fix on the real world scale and it's cost effective.”

Before the flood management work, Wolf Creek washed out part of South Pecan Street during heavy rains in 2014.

“There was an actual minivan in the tree that people had to be rescued out of,” Gahagan said. “Because that entire road just gave way as Wolf Creek overwhelmed it. After that event, that road was repaired, built to a better standard. We didn't even have issues with it during (Hurricane) Sally.”

The environmental director also discussed Foley's program to address failing septic tanks, particularly in the Beulah Heights community.

“A lot of the Beulah Heights community is on septic tanks that have started to fail,” Gahagan said. “Riviera is in the area but not accessible to all of that community. So we're trying to work on some funding to help that community have those main lines put in and be able to connect to sewer so that when you know there's a failing septic system that will come offline right there next to the stream.”

Foley's commitment to environmental restoration extends to the Bon Secour River, where projects have not only curtailed flooding but also reduced pollution.

“All these agricultural fields drain into this treatment pond and that treatment system has been drastically reducing pollution from Foley and the agricultural areas west of here,” Gahagan said. “Downstream in the Bon Secour, we're seeing the nitrates, phosphates, a lot of these nonpoint source pollution numbers just cut in half. Sediment, it's pulling tons of sediment out of the system. It's actually going to be a pretty good project to show off nationally for its effectiveness in restoring the waters naturally.”

Moreover, Foley is actively expanding its protected lands, with the Bon Secour River project set to become the Andrew James Wetland Reserve.

“The Bon Secour Project will be a wetland reserve, the Andrew James Wetland Reserve, that will eventually be online, an area just for nature to take its course,” Gahagan said.

Other sensitive areas included in the approximately 1,000 acres under city protection include property on Graham Creek and Wolf Creek.

“Foley’s really done a great job, thanks to our leadership, of conserving land,” Gahagain said. “People can develop what they want but if you can hold it into municipal, state, federal, private land trusts and protect it, there’s nothing better than that. We would love to have as much as we can preserved. But it comes to a price tag and you have to have leaders that want to do that.”

Resilience projects are also extending to other areas, including the Magnolia River and those adjacent to Wolf Bay. Gahagan said some projects have already improved water quality, such as in the Wolf Creek headwaters near Poplar Street.

“There was zero oxygen in there that you couldn't even support fish in 2005 ish. We were getting like zero oxygen,” Gahagan said. “After Foley did this restoration here, the oxygen levels have been coming up and now we're seeing a great habitat. It looks like a weedy overgrown area but it's a great natural system.”

As Foley continues its proactive approach to environmental challenges, the city seeks to set an example for effective and sustainable solutions, showcasing its commitment to the well-being of both residents and the natural ecosystem.