Mahoning flood prevention watchdog protects life and property

By Peter H. Milliken


Mahoning County Planning Commission’s certified floodplain manager serves as the county’s flood-prevention watchdog.

The floodplain manager, Sarah Gartland, inspects developments in flood-prone areas, administers the county’s flood-control regulations and informs the community about flooding risks.

“I’m interested in what’s actually going to change the way the water flows,” Gartland said, referring to any structures proposed for a floodplain.

“We’re trying to make sure that, if they are going to do any development, it will not, in any way, cause flooding to someone new, someone different or make the flooding worse,” she said of landowners.

To protect life and property, county regulations require that any new construction in a floodplain must be “built in such a way that it will not be destroyed by a flood to protect that investment and that it won’t worsen anyone else’s flooding,” Gartland said.

Gartland, who has worked for the commission since 2001, received her certification in 2006 from the Madison, Wis.-based Association of State Floodplain Managers after passing an exam covering stream-related environmental issues, flood insurance and engineering design specifications. Ohio has about 400 CFMs statewide.

The commission at 50 Westchester Drive regulates development in flood-prone areas and is the repository of flood-insurance rate maps. Gartland, a community planner with the commission, urges anyone considering building a structure or buying real estate in the county to inspect those maps before committing to the building or buying decision.

Because flooding is among the costliest forms of natural disaster in the United States, homeowners insurance doesn’t cover flood damage, and homeowners wanting flood insurance must buy it from the federal government.

To be eligible for flood insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency flood disaster assistance, communities must join the National Flood Insurance Program, which requires the community to adopt flood-loss reduction standards.

At the request of a contractor, Gartland recently conducted an inspection on a Springfield Township grain and dairy farm to advise the contractor concerning planned construction of a 30-foot long and 30-foot wide concrete and steel bridge, which farm machinery and cattle will use to cross a creek. The landowner did not wish to be identified for this story.

Joe Bova, project manager for the contractor, SET Inc. of Lowellville, said he intends to keep the concrete bridge abutments out of the stream, so no federal or state stream-disturbance permits will be required for this project.

“If you work outside the creek, you don’t need to get all your special permits,” he said, adding that the bridge will be in the floodplain that would be inundated by a once-in-100-year rain.

Bova said he invited Gartland to visit the bridge- construction site “just to make sure that she sees what we’re doing, and we’re not breaking any rules or laws.”

Federal and state regulators discourage building concrete fords across stream bottoms because “that could cause buildup [of debris] in the stream and then cause a dam and cause more of a flood upstream,” Bova said.

Every time such a ford would be used, water runoff into the creek would be disturbed and mud would be created, which would increase the amount of sediment downstream, he noted.

If the contractor were planning to place bridge-support pillars in the stream bed or build a concrete ford across the stream bottom, federal and state stream-disturbance permits would be required; but no such permits will be required to build the proposed bridge, if it’s kept completely out of the stream, Gartland said.

Bridge pillars in the stream could trap debris and impede water flow, and thereby cause flooding, Gartland said.

“I advised the contractor to avoid doing any work inside the actual stream itself because, anytime you do anything inside of a stream, cleaning it out, putting in a bridge, changing the shape of the banks, you change the way the area floods,” Gartland said after the on-site consultation. The contractor agreed to follow her advice, she said.

“I advised them to do the project in such a way that it does not change the water flow,” she said of the bridge-installation planners. “I will inspect it after it’s done to make sure it was done properly,” she said of the new bridge construction.

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