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Mayor: County, others working to address flooding issues

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County continues to struggle with the latest round of flooding which hit the area on April 13.

According to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, there is a united group that is working to achieve a long term solution to flooding in the county.

“Yesterday (April 29) myself, Senator Rusty Crowe and Unicoi County Road Superintendent Terry Haynes made a conference call to NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and retrieved some new information,” Evely said. “NRCS has programs for watershed programs and remediation of the streams that we are looking into. (District Conservationist) Greg Quillen recommended a program called PL-566, it’s a long term solution and can take a long time to get done.”

Evely acknowledged that the PL-566 authorizes the USDA NRCS to help local organizations and units of government plan and implement watershed projects. PL-566 watershed projects are locally led to solve natural and human resource problems in watersheds up to 250,000 acres.

“Mr. Quillen let us know that the PL-566 works through local government sponsors and helps participants solve natural resource and related economic problems on a watershed basis,” Evely said. “Projects can include flood prevention and damage reduction, development of rural water supply sources, erosion and sediment control, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, wetland creation and restoration, and increased recreational opportunities.”

According to Evely, the county would need to be patient during this lengthy project.

“We first have to see if we qualify for the program,” Evely said. “After that preliminary study there are additional studies that take time. This is not an immediate fix, but hopefully this will be a long term solution.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has regulations that prevent the Unicoi County Highway Department from resolving the long term flooding issue.

“EPA regulations prevent us from getting into the creeks and dig,” Haynes said. “I can clear branches and debris from under the bridges, but I cannot get into private property. I could see a thousand dollar fine if I do so. People don’t understand that. Myself, the mayor or the county commission can’t get permission to get in there to make adjustments that are needed, but (State) Senator Crowe and Congressman (Phil) Roe are on board with us.”

Crowe acknowledged that he and Roe will be looking at what their offices can do to help.

“I know whenever Dr. Roe is able to go back to Washington, D.C., and I’m able to go back to Nashville, we are going to see what we can get done,” Crowe said. “Before COVID-19, we had a program that would provide $100 million for infrastructure needs for our counties and when COVID-19 hit, we doubled that to $200 million. We can look at passing a resolution that will allow the law to state that the county could go on private property in cases of emergencies.”

According to Evely, the whole process could be four years for a solution, but some work may be done before then.

“From start to finish we are talking about a four-year process,” Evely said. “That being said, when completing a temporary study, they could tell us some things we can do on the county level that would alleviate some of the flooding especially in the Temple Hill area. We are working hard on this.”

Evely acknowledged that if approved, the program would be paid for by NRCS.

“It will be paid for by NRCS,” Evely said. “The design phase and even the construction would be paid for 100 percent.”

There is no current timeframe for the application process to be completed.