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As flooding risks increase, this small town in Appalachia is working on a flood mitigation plan

 Flooding in April 2020 from Peak Creek pushed water onto East Main Street in Pulaski.
Flooding in April 2020 from Peak Creek pushed water onto East Main Street in Pulaski.

Scientists predict that flooding events will become more common, due to climate change, and communities in Appalachia are particularly vulnerable. The small town of Pulaski, in the New River Valley, is responding, by creating a plan to withstand the worst impacts of flooding.

On a clear, fall morning, Cathy Hanks is standing on a walking trail beside Peak Creek. The water is calm and the birds are singing. But she’s seen the waters rise and spill over into the town many, many times.

In 2020 for example, the creek flooded several times.

“We had several 100 year floods in one month. You can see where this is being eaten away,” said Hanks, the President of a local activist group, Friends of Peak Creek.

The bank along the creek is eroding, including at the edge of a former EPA Superfund site, a factory that used to make sulfuric acid. The site was contained by the EPA in the early 2000s, but Hanks and others wonder if repeated floods are bringing contaminants into the creek.

“Our concern is, it’s right beside the creek and there’s still erosion over there.”

Testing in 2019 by a student researcher at Virginia Tech revealed that heavy metals are present in the water and sediment near the site.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has added portions of the creek to its list of impaired waters for high levels of several metals and chemicals, as well as e-coli.

To address these issues, as well as the flooding along the creek, in 2013 Hanks and other residents formed a local group called Friends of Peak Creek (FOPC). They also do beautification projects along the creek and organize clean up events to collect trash from the water.

Peak Creek
Courtesy Friends of Peak Creek
Peak Creek

FOPC partnered with the New River Conservancy, and the town of Pulaski, to collect data that was used in a flood mitigation plan, which was presented to Pulaski Town Council in February, 2021.

Part of the plan outlines steps that could clean up the contamination in the creek. It was submitted to the EPA, and the agency may provide funding for cleanup if the plan is approved.

Another part of the plan was sent to the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to help widen the creek and prevent erosion. According to Darlene Burcham, Pulaski town manager, the USACE has said that it will provide funds to do some of the flood mitigation work.

Applying for aid from the federal government to implement these types of plans isn’t easy, and it’s expensive. First, a community has to establish proof from engineers that it’s necessary.

A team of faculty and students from Virginia Tech’s
Department of Biological Systems Engineering provided some assistance for free. They collected water and sediment quality data before and after rainfall events to see what the impacts of flooding were.

“They’re just kind of stuck because they built this town right next to the creek. And it floods, and there’s almost no way to stop that,” said Cully Hession, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech.

He says relocating homes closest to the flood zone is one solution. Another is rebuilding the banks that erosion has eaten away.

Peak Creek in downtown Pulaski
Photo courtesy Friends of Peak Creek
Peak Creek in downtown Pulaski

“Pulaski is one of our favorite places to work. Because they have a really great citizen’s group, and the town engineer reached out,” said Leigh Anne Krometis, another engineering professor who was on the team that assisted with the flood mitigation plan. She said sometimes communities get into disputes when it comes to addressing environmental and public health issues, but Pulaski worked together on the project in a collaborative way.

Back at the pedestrian path, Hanks points to one place they’ve recently done some restoration work themselves. Near a playground along the banks of one of the tributaries that flows into Peak Creek, the town partnered with FOPC and the New River Conservancy to plant bushes and native plants, like willow, elderberry and silky dogwood.

The vegetation can’t prevent flooding, but it can reduce erosion. And in a bad flood, the plants can help slow the water. “People don’t understand that this is healthy. Pretty is not necessarily healthy,” Hanks said.

The playgrounds and parks near the creek will continue to flood, a situation that's inevitable,. And it's one that many communities are grappling with.

Pulaski is working to stay ahead of the risk by developing a plan and taking steps to act on it. But it will take time, and a lot of money, to prevent the worst damage from flooding.

“This is gonna take years,” Hanks said. “Years and years to do, to implement plans to protect the creek.”

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.