Forward-Thinking Watershed Master Plan Makes Fayetteville a Leader in Flood Resilience

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Ed Dickson

Water Engineer

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Morgan McIlwain

Stormwater Engineer

To find solutions for flooding problems stemming from recent significant rainfall events and outdated infrastructure, the City of Fayetteville partnered with Freese and Nichols to create a forward-thinking, long-term watershed master plan whose innovative approach has made Fayetteville a leader in the state on flood-risk resilience while saving taxpayer dollars and laying a strong foundation for future economic development.

For its engineering excellence, the project was recognized with a Grand Award, one of four top honors from the American Council of Engineering Companies of North Carolina. It now is eligible to compete for national ACEC recognition.

Building Resilience

The program is a flagship project for the City and shows how a community can harness its determination and its resources to reduce flood risks and build resilience. It is driving fundamental change in two key ways:

  • Giving the City objective, data-driven tools for identifying areas of town that are the most vulnerable to flooding
  • Helping guide efforts to make the smartest investments in infrastructure to protect residents’ lives and property

Engineering With Innovation

The program incorporates creative problem-solving for the City:

  • The master plan uses a high-level, citywide rain-on-mesh model, combined with detailed hydrologic analysis, to identify flood-prone areas across 15 watersheds that need more analysis. This is the first time a North Carolina city has used this type of modeling at this scale.
  • The strategy allowed the City to distinguish (and prioritize) areas of significant flood risk to focus on from those that didn’t have significant flooding. And it saved the City more than $25 million in overall study costs while still allowing them to assess flood risk citywide and then direct funds to high-priority areas.
  • We also created a new stormwater geodatabase that connects separate data systems more effectively to assist with long-term planning and system performance evaluation. Existing information that’s stored in shapefile and Excel format is being assimilated and translated into Geodatabase format to provide a framework for uniform formatting and storage.

This gives the City a more efficient framework for its future asset management work. It also provides a sophisticated new way of addressing infrastructure problems. For instance, when a stormwater pipe breaks, crews will not only be able to locate it for repairs, but will now they’ll also be able to identify what type of pipe was used, when it was installed and when it was expected to be replaced. This will help reveal trends and identify important details, including possible causes for the pipe’s failure, whether others in the area are also failing and what the best response is to prevent a recurrence.

Exceeding Expectations

The citywide hydrologic/hydraulic analysis provides a good starting point for any additional drainage investigation but also has the potential as a large-scale flood forecast tool. It already proved valuable in the Hurricane Dorian response in 2019 and to validate flooding from a significant storm event in February 2020.

As the watershed study program progresses, City staff also can use the results of the citywide model to help inform day-to-day management of the floodplain. And the model can be useful for dealing with individual residents’ drainage complaints.

Looking Toward the Future

With a growing population that now tops 209,000, Fayetteville is revitalizing areas across the City. The watershed master plan is essential to support those efforts in neighborhoods and in downtown, where retail, hotel and dining developments are refashioning the area around a new minor-league ballpark. The City is also researching other areas with high potential for economic growth and evaluating options to help spur that growth with economic incentives.

The watershed master plan is vital for protecting people, property and assets, for preparing to the City’s future and for saving tax dollars over the long term.

To learn more about the Watershed Master Plan or similar services, contact Ed Dickson,, or Morgan McIlwain,

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Ed Dickson, P.E., is a Water and Construction Management Engineer VI in Charlotte.

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Morgan McIlwain, P.E., is a Stormwater Project Manager in Raleigh, NC