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Community’s Input Sought for Watershed Plans

The St. Thomas Harbor watershed encompasses 3.9 square miles and includes six main guts, indicated by the blue lines. (Screen capture)
Andres Torizzo (Zoom screen shot)

A project studying three watersheds of critical concern on St. Thomas and five on St. Croix is seeking community input to help mitigate future damage from runoff and flooding during intense rains.

Funded by a grant secured by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the project is a team effort by a host of agencies and organizations, including DPNR’s Division of Coastal Zone Management and the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, with Vermont-based Watershed Consulting Associates as the lead contractor.

Two virtual workshops on Thursday provided an overview of the project to St. Thomas businesses and residents, respectively, and solicited feedback on how flooding and water quality impact their communities and livelihoods. Similar workshops were held Wednesday for St. Croix, where the focus is on the Long Point Bay, Diamond, Bethlehem, Hovensa and Salt River Bay watersheds.

Watersheds under study on St. Thomas are Cyril E. King Airport, St. Thomas Harbor, and Bolongo Bay, which were chosen by DPNR based on their vulnerability to flooding and runoff, said Andres Torizzo, a principle and hydrologist with Watershed Consulting, who led Thursday’s workshops along with Valerie Peters of the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, who is leading the outreach component of the project.

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The chosen watersheds contain critical infrastructure such as the airport, roadways, agricultural activity, and commercial, residential and government buildings and investments, Torizzo said.

In their natural state watersheds sustain life, with 50 percent of rainfall soaking into the ground, 40 percent evaporating, and just 10 percent running into the ocean, Torizzo said. With 75 percent development of land with impervious surfaces, however, that ratio pretty much reverses, with a full 55 percent of water running off and just 15 percent being absorbed back into the ground, while about 30 percent evaporates, he said.

Such excessive runoff can devastate ocean life – with sediments and pollution such as oil from roads and e-coli from animals and leaky septic systems smothering the sea floor – and also to ecosystems on land, such as shrimp and crab species that reside in the guts, Torizzo said.

“The guts themselves are very important environmental resources, not just where they are draining to,” he said.

The Cyril E. King watershed encompasses 1.8 square miles and four main guts, indicated by the blue lines. (Screen capture)

The damage from runoff also is felt by humans, in flooding to their properties, washed-out roads, treacherous potholes and contaminated water, said Torizzo.

The impacts are threefold: Economic, social and environmental, according to Torizzo.

“A healthy economy is tied to a healthy environment,” he said.

Business owners attending Thursday’s workshop agreed. According to a poll conducted during the one-hour session, 89 percent of respondents said their businesses had been impacted by flooding or poor water quality; 79 percent said those two issues have worsened over time; and 56 percent said they were concerned about the safety of swimming due to poor water quality.

Asked if their business would benefit from a water-quality-friendly marketing campaign, 89 percent said yes.

The evening workshop for residents revealed similar concerns, with a full 100 percent of respondents saying that flooding is growing worse and a majority expressing concern about the safety of the water for swimming. Participants also said that they do make use of the island’s guts for recreation such as hiking, fishing and birdwatching.

A graphic presented by Andres Torizzo at a virtual workshop on Thursday shows the impacts of development on watersheds. Torizzo is a principle and hydrologist with Watershed Consulting Associates, the lead contractor in a project to develop management plans for critical watersheds on St. Thomas and St. Croix. (Zoom screen shot)

In a question and answer session, residents also expressed concerns about leaky septic systems, which Torizzo said his field crews are trained to identify.

“We’re trying to undo generations of neglect and issues” and think in a new way about sustainable development, he said. It will take time, and successive watershed plans and projects. “There is no silver bullet.”

There are ways to help mitigate the problem now, however, including improving waste management, reporting dumping and illicit discharges to the DPNR, keeping drainage areas such as culverts, swales and guts free of debris, and adopting best management practices such as terraced walls and gardens and planting vegetation for erosion control.

Torizzo urged all members of the community to visit the project website to offer insights about flooding and water runoff under the “Community Input” tab, where they also can pinpoint areas of concern on an interactive map. Email can be sent to Torizzo at andres@watershedca.com. Residents also can download a “Vegetation for Erosion Control” manual developed by the Coral Bay Community Council under the “Resources” tab.

The project, which began in March and will produce a final watershed management plan at the end of September, has already mapped the stormwater infrastructure on St. Croix – culverts, catch basins and outfalls – and will begin doing so on St. Thomas starting the week of April 12, Torizzo said. Among many other efforts, such as sampling for “concerning substances” in the guts such as e-coli, metals and sediments, watershed-specific meetings will be held this summer with residents of the surrounding communities, he said.

“Please do stay tuned for that,” said Torizzo. Those interested can visit the website or the Facebook page to keep abreast of updates and other events.

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