FOLEY – Before the next hurricane, flood or other situation, Foley is preparing to deal with environmental challenges.

Leslie Gahagan, Foley environmental director, said Foley has been working on resilience projects in order to be ready for emergencies before they occur. She spoke with members of the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch at the group’s annual meeting on Jan. 27.

She said Foley has always prepared plans to deal with storms, but as the city grows and weather events become potentially more extreme, those efforts are being expanded.

“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.

The city has also been developing plans to deal with flooding around Foley.

“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.”

As an example, she said that in the Beulah Heights community, the city and local engineers have been working to find and resolve issues that contribute to flooding.

“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,” she 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.”

Foley is also working on a program to deal with failing septic tanks.

“A lot of the Beulah Heights community is on septic tanks that have started to fail,” she 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.”

The Bon Secour River is another area where the city has worked on restoration and flood management. The work has not only cut back on flooding, but 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,” she 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.”

Some of the restoration area on the Bon Secour River will be added to the protected lands acquired and maintained by Foley. 

“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.”

The city is also expanding resilience projects to include the Magnolia River and other areas near Wolf Bay.

She 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.”