Banking on Mitigation

New regulations might change the landscape of national wetlands policy

by Amos Esty

Although the Clean Water Act protects U.S. wetlands, every year thousands of acres of swamps and marshes are legally destroyed and converted into golf courses, shopping malls and other forms of dry, lucrative ground. Since 1989, the goal of wetlands policy has been to achieve "no net loss," but that remains an elusive target. Under current guidelines, developers whose projects will impinge on natural wetlands can receive permits allowing construction in return for agreeing to offset the damage through a process known as compensatory mitigation. The two most common forms of this practice are individual mitigation, in which developers build compensatory wetlands themselves, and mitigation banking, in which developers purchase credits from companies (mitigation banks) that have restored or created wetlands nearby.

In theory, it's a pretty straightforward system—for each acre of natural wetland lost there should be at least one acre created or restored. But a 2001 study by the National Research Council concluded that despite mitigation efforts the country was losing about 60,000 acres of wetlands annually. Last spring, in an attempt to improve the process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed new regulations that would force developers to meet stricter—that is, more expensive—standards for individual mitigation sites, which might make mitigation banks seem like a bargain in comparison.

According to the Corps, increased use of mitigation banking will address many of the problems that have kept "no net loss" from being realized. But a number of studies, and quite a few scientists, dispute the benefits of mitigation banks—and question whether it's even possible to engineer successful wetlands.

"How do you re-create something that took nature a thousand years to develop?" asks Joy B. Zedler, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of the NRC report. "You don't." At least not, she says, within the timescale imposed by the Corps. Most mitigation sites are subject to no more than five years of oversight, but some wetlands, particularly forested areas, might take decades to replace adequately the land lost to development.

According to Zedler, the primary obstacle is that although scientists know that wetlands help regulate water cycles, serve as water filters and provide habitat for diverse flora and fauna, even specialists don't always know how they do it. William M. Lewis, Jr., an ecologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes that for now "we don't have any reliable way of replicating functions and values."

A study published last year by Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency supports these concerns. The agency studied 12 mitigation-banking sites across the state to determine how well they mimicked natural conditions. The results weren't particularly promising. Twenty-eight percent of the area surveyed consisted of shallow ponds lacking rooted vegetation and could not be considered functioning wetlands. Most of this acreage, however, had either already been sold as credits or approved for sale.

The Ohio EPA also found that plant communities were generally of lower quality than natural wetlands and more likely to be home to invasive species. The banking sites scored even worse when judged by the presence of amphibians. None provided habitat for either wood frogs or spotted salamanders, which the report called indicative of successful sites, and all were dominated by just a few species of frogs.

Of course, individual mitigation sites face all of these same difficulties. But two factors add to the risks of banks. First, if one small individual mitigation site fails, the effects on the surrounding landscape should be minimal. The collapse of a large bank site is a much more costly mistake. Second, whereas developers who create their own mitigation sites are usually required to do so in the immediate vicinity of the destroyed wetlands, mitigation banks tend to be located farther from the impact sites.

At the same time, mitigation banking has a number of points in its favor. For one thing, purchasing credits from a bank that has already restored or created wetlands can reduce or eliminate the time lag between the impact of development and the construction of new wetlands. According to George Howard, co-founder of Restoration Systems, a mitigation-banking company based in North Carolina, there's another advantage to mitigation banks: "Unsuccessful projects could bankrupt me personally," he says, "and that's a great incentive to succeed."

Perhaps the biggest problem with individual mitigation is that no one knows just how well it works. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office issued a report showing that the Corps rarely visited sites to ensure that required mitigation was being completed. And in most cases, annual monitoring reports from the permit recipients (usually a condition of approval) were never filed. "Until the Corps takes its oversight responsibilities more seriously," the report concluded, "it will not know if thousands of acres of compensatory mitigation have been performed."

So although many wetlands ecologists don't share Howard's enthusiasm for banking, there is agreement that, as he puts it, "the alternatives are a sad, sad story." According to the Corps, the drafted regulations are unlikely to change significantly before being finalized later this year, which means that mitigation banks will soon become an increasingly important part of national wetlands policy. Whether that's a step toward "no net loss" remains to be seen. As Zedler says, "there's a lot of promise in mitigation banking, but it all depends on how it's done." 

Lowell Mill Park Complete After Dam Removal

A little more than a year after Lowell Mill Dam was destroyed, a park has now been completed on a plot of 17 acres surrounding the Little River site outside the Kenly city limits.

By Jamie Hodges
Staff Writer

"It’s done," said George Howard, co-founder of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based mitigation company. "We’re just putting some trees in to make it look more attractive." 

The dam was demolished in December 2005. Work on the park, which is approximately two acres, started last October. Howard said the construction ofthe park cost the company approximately $80,000.  Restoration Systems will soon transfer the property to JohnstonCounty. 

After the county takes ownership, a grand opening will take place and the park will be open to the public. Along with the land transfer, Restoration Systems will also provide the county with a private endowment of $140,000. 

"The endowment is for the upkeep of the park," said ErnieWilkinson, a county employee who is overseeing the park as aspecial project. 

Wilkinson said it will take sometime for the attorneys representing both the county and Restoration Systems to examine the paperwork before the official transfer of the title of deeds takes place, but the grand opening is expected to be near the Easter holiday. While the land is still technically private property, Howard said curious visitors are welcome to view it now. 

"People are going to visit the place anyway," said Howard.  "And we have no problem with that. We just want them to be careful." 

The park has a gravel entrance and parking lot that sits on top of a hillside overlooking the Little River.  Several park benches that can be used for picnics have also been strategically placed to offer a view of the river.  Twin walking trails wind down from the hilltop to the river.

"It turned out real pretty," said Wilkinson. "This is something that the local public can enjoy." 

The dam was removed despite strong protest from several Kenly area residents who were concerned that it would negatively affect their fishing.  The water levels dropped drastically right after the demolition. 

"The water levels have since picked up," said Wilkinson. "The fishing will increase." 

Until it was destroyed, the dam had stood on the Little River for approximately two centuries.  Howard said that back in 1810, the majority of Kenly area residents actually wanted the dam destroyed.  According to Howard, families who lived on Little River downstream of the dam didn’t have access to the fish.  "People signed a petition, because the dam was blocking the fish," said Howard. 

Dam Nation

On February 22, 1976, in Buncombe County, North Carolina, the Bearwallow Dam collapsed. a wall of water rushed downriver and killed four people. in 1989, multiple dams in Fayetteville failed, killing more people and destroying property. during hurricanes Floyd and Dennis in 1999, thirty-five dams in North Carolina crumpled under rapidly flooding rivers. Luckily, residents received adequate warning to evacuate, and no one was killed.

As America’s seventy-five thousand dams age into critical status-long past their design lives and into their geriatric years-they become less and less stable, in danger of failing at any time. What will happen if no one takes care of them?

No exit plan

Most U.S. dams will exceed their intended design lives by 2020. They must inspected before then for structural stability, says Martin Doyle, associate professor of geography. North Carolina is home to some five thousand dams, twenty-two percent of which are considered "high hazard"-meaning failure could result in loss of human life or significant damage to property. But the state has only fifteen dam inspectors.

There are two options for taking care of a dam: restore it to full stability, or remove it from the river or stream. Because many dams aren’t making money anymore, no one wants to invest in repairs. But removal isn’t easy and can come with a hefty price tag.

From a structural engineering standpoint, dams are made (and licensed) to stand for a set time, often fifty years. But most dams weren’t created with exit strategies or any thought of what would happen when fifty years were up, Doyle says. In that time-and often much longer in the Northeast and Midwest-impeded river flow has restricted movement for fish and other organisms, and stored up decades’ worth of hazardous pollutants. So dam removal is an issue of human safety and of the environment.

That’s where Doyle comes in. An environmental firm called Restoration Systems (home to four Carolina alums, including Adam Riggsbee, one of Doyle’s graduate students),together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, wanted to know exactly what happens when a dam is removed. They asked Doyle for help, and since then his team has been gathering information with what he calls "the buckshot approach"-a little bit of data on everything, including water samples up- and downstream, surveys of fish, vegetation, bugs, and mussels, and measurements of the river’s shape before and after removal.

Opening the floodgates

So what does happen when you take a dam away? It depends on how you do it, Doyle says. if you "blow and go"-dynamite the entire dam and just let the chips fall where they may-the results can be ugly. In 1972 a dam was removed on the upper Hudson River in that way, and shortly afterward sixteen miles of the river were heavily contaminated with PCB-a potent carcinogen-from an industrial plant upstream. That kind of disaster can also happen when a dam breaks on its own, which becomes more likely as it gets older and decays.

The safer solution is to remove the dam in chunks, Doyle says. Cut a few feet off the top each year, and the water lowers and exposes some of the reservoir. Then plant trees and vegetation on the reservoir sediment, and repeat the whole process annually until the dam is gone. Vegetation makes the sediment stable-and pollutants are often attached to the sediment.

"With gradual removal, you’re more in control of the situation," Doyle says. "With ‘blow and go,’ it’s all or nothing-if Jimmy Hoffa’s buried in the sediment somewhere, he’s going downstream."

The results of removal also depend on where the dam is located. Here in North Carolina, farms, municipalities, and other sources are loading the streams with nitrogen and phosphorus, Doyle says. "Which, ironically, are stored very effectively in reservoirs. So when we remove a dam, not only do we potentially release all the stuff that’s been stored, but we also remove this sink."

In the Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, there’s not as much chemical runoff from fertilizer-based agriculture, so reservoirs don’t store as much waste. But sediment release isn’t consequence-free there, either. The Condit Dam in Oregon, for example, is slated for removal, mostly to allow salmon passage. But studies showed that removal will kill all the salmon downstream for several generations, Doyle says. That’s how much dirty sediment would come out.

"People had to ask themselves, ‘Can we live through a few years of almost one hundred percent salmon mortality in order to get to this long-term benefit?’ And they went with ‘yes,’ because they knew this salmon run would eventually go extinct if they kept the dam. Removal was the only alternative."

Even though the "blow and go" approach is less predictable, environmental restoration groups sometimes opt for it anyway, often for political reasons. "The reality is, you don’t know how long you’ll have a person friendly to the cause in the local state agency," Doyle says. "So people do it when they have the window. A more complicated, staged removal adds costs and drags the whole thing out."

The best dam town in Wisconsin

Most dams were created to provide hydropower for textile or grain mills, hydroelectricity for cities, or flood control. While few dams are still industrially useful, many still serve recreation purposes. Anglers and duck hunters, for example-people who consider themselves conservationists but not environmental purists-often want dams to stay put.

In some places, dams have been around longer than most of the population. No one can remember them not being there, so people see those dams as part of the natural landscape, Doyle says. "It’s this weird dichotomy: if you ask people why they want to remove a dam, they say ‘environmental reasons.’ If you ask them why they want to keep a dam, they say ‘environmental reasons.’ people just have very different views about what is the natural environment." And those views have a strong geographic component, both within states and nationwide.

Local communities in the midwest and southeast are usually adamantly opposed to dam removal, despite pro-removal attitudes in the larger community. In 2001 a group of environmentalists removed a dam in the small town of Lavalle, Wisconsin, even though citizens wanted to keep it. "People had always known it to be there," Doyle says. "The town motto was ‘we’re the best dam town in Wisconsin.’" Also, property values are worth more along a lakefront compared to a small creek, so there are economic reasons for resistance, too, he says.

In the Lavalle case, the owner wanted to sell the dam because it wasn’t profitable. But the town wouldn’t buy it from him. Then the environmental activist group heard about the situation, and bought the dam with the sole purpose of removing it.

Whose dam is this?

If the public balks at removal, who has the final say? Removal of a dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers literally requires an act of Congress. in other cases, the state owns the dam.

The top-down approach to removal-where the government trumps the local community-is physically effective, but can create generations of resentment.

Education, though, can increase local support. In Wisconsin, a tiny nonprofit group called the Wisconsin River Alliance traveled all over the state, going to town meetings and talking with people about what effect dam removal would have on their communities. For example, people often assumed their property values would go down-but the alliance showed that they could go up, depending on what people did with the land next to the river.

With other dams, jurisdiction is unclear. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 15 percent of U.S. dams have "undetermined ownership." No one knows who owns them, and often no one maintains them. How could this happen? Well, Doyle says, suppose a farmer built a dam in 1860. Fifty years later, it’s part of the landscape. and it’s on the river-not on the farmer’s property. If he built it, does that mean his descendants own it? What if the land near the dam has since been turned into a neighborhood?

And if you do own a dam, you have to make it safe. "Once you have liability, if a 12-year-old kid drowns in your dam, you’re responsible for it," Doyle says. "So you want that thing out of there. If you’re not making any money off it, there’s really no impetus to keep it."

Wisconsin’s government has tried to solve the problem by enforcing a rule that every dam has an owner and assigning liability-a move that has gotten rid of a lot of the state’s dams.

Sexy fish

On the other side of the country, in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll find no such resistance. "Dams there are evil," Doyle says. "Just hell. Because the main thing they’re associated with is salmon passage. Environmentally, salmon symbolize the wild west. we know if we remove the dams, the salmon will be able to run free."

Support in the region is largely due to a case that has captured public imagination during the past decade, Doyle says-the Elwha Dams in Washington’s Olympic National Park. These dams will be removed beginning in 2008. The park is a world heritage site located just outside of Seattle-the mecca of environmentalism. Though the dams were originally built for hydropower, they haven’t been generating it for quite some time. Now salmon passage is nearly nil.

"Removal gets more complicated in the Midwest and Southeast because we don’t have this big sexy fish that people love to latch onto," Doyle says. "We have pigs, and a lot of pollution."

One for one

Despite our lack of sexy fish, North Carolina has become a hotbed for dam removal and other wetland restoration, Doyle says. The state has turned the dam situation on its head by adopting a system called "mitigation banking"-a sort of environmental quid pro quo in which businesses get marketplace credit for environmental restoration.

Here’s how mitigation works: a business wants to build a new store or road on land that crosses a river. To make up for environmental damage, by law the company must restore another ailing river elsewhere in the state. The business itself doesn’t do the restoration. instead, it buys "mitigation credits" from a mitigation bank. The mitigation bank buys land in need of restoration, does the dirty work-including removing dams-and makes its money selling credits.

Tearing down dams in North Carolina is especially beneficial to the environment, Doyle says. "We have really flat rivers, and a small dam can create a three-mile reservoir. So if you remove a small dam, you’ve restored three miles of a river."

Martin Doyle is associate professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences.

By Colie Hoffman
Click Here for a PDF Version of "Dam Nation"

For questions related to this article, please contact nhoffman@email.unc.edu

Deadbeat Dams-Perhaps it’s Time to Pull the Plug

Most people who think of dams envision strapping big boys: Hoover, Glen Canyon, Grand Coulee, or Three Gorges in China. Asked how many dams are in the United States, people typically guess eight or nine hundred. In fact, America’s rivers contain 79,000 high-hazard dams the size of a two-story building; another estimated two million smaller dams clog upstream tributaries. Worldwide, there are ten times more dams than in the United States, most of them in China and India.

That’s a lot of dams and they’re not getting any younger or healthier. Dams in the United States have an average life span of 50 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and by the year 2020 some 85 percent of them will have outlived their ‘natural’ existence.

Perhaps it’s time to pull the plug.

WHATS WRONG WITH DAMS?

What have I got against dams? Nothing, personally. But antiquated dams have a lot going against them: seismic shifts shake them from below; compound water pressures scour them from behind; sediment fills reservoirs; evaporation drinks more than people; invasive species choke intake and out flow; and a fast-changing climate brings drought and then flooding on scales for which they were never designed.

Not surprisingly, some dams can no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally built—to help turn mills, transport barges, irrigate crops, store drinking water, generate power, manage floods, and provide recreation. All dams created economic benefits at some point, and many still do. Unfortunately, most benefits have diminished with time and with competition. Stone mills are now shopping malls; canals are freeways; and farms are subdivisions.

More irrigators now pump groundwater than tap dam reservoirs. Water is far more securely stored in cool, clean aquifers than on hot, polluted surfaces. Cleaner power comes from wind, sun, geothermal or wave energy than from warm, stagnant, shallow dams filled with rotting vegetation. More lucrative recreation splashes from whitewater than from flat ponds. As one recent survey found, residential property values rose overnight after a liberated current transformed lakefront lots into riverfront property.

All of which remind us of dams’ mortality. As dams age they have physical weaknesses, cracks and leaks that require frequent and expensive care to keep them active or simply alive. To be sure, some dams may cheat death or prolong activity via private investments or public subsidies for facelifts. But despite lobbying and D-grade warnings by engineers, taxpayers have so far kept a tight fist. With interest earnings higher elsewhere, and with safety compliance costs escalating, the number of obsolete, orphaned, or “deadbeat” dams has risen; today 15 percent of America’s National Inventory of Dams are classified as being of “indeterminate ownership.”

DAM BUSTERS TO THE RESCUE

In economic terms, I began to see it this way: Dams are bonds. Many once generated strong yields and high-grade investment ratings but have deteriorated to the status of junk—personal, legal, and financial fixed liabilities. Junk bonds that cannot compete in the current marketplace will be liquidated.

So what I’m betting my personal savings on is that when faced with a hefty price tag for fixing what has become a public nuisance, dam owners—whether a farmer or a county executive—will logically seek a more affordable exit strategy.

With half a dozen colleagues at PERC, I began to develop a business plan for dam removal. It focuses less on structural removal, which is straightforward, and more on whom might finance it, which is trickier. Though dam removal has proven to be roughly one-third the price of repair, it is never cheap. On the Baraboo River in Wisconsin, for example, a dam’s repair was pegged at $694,000; removal cost locals $214,000.In Wisconsin, as elsewhere, removal funds come from the generous purses of foundations, environmental groups, and taxpayers trying to make the world a better place.

That’s fine. But in my experience, these sources of funding can prove sporadic and slow, with hidden strings attached. To lower transaction costs, I have begun to pursue the more reliable dark side of dam removal financing—to raise additional funds from the so-called evildoers. These are the economic interests that lead public and private institutions to build roads, pave parking lots, develop golfcourses, add pesticides, cut forests, degrade watersheds, emit pollutants and, ironically, dam more rivers.

How and why would dam builders or freeway pavers fund dam removal? Here’s where it gets interesting. Before business interests start any development, they must by law complete an environmental impact assessment to show how their action will result in no net loss for the public or the environment. For every acre of wetland that developers drain, for example, they need to restore two acres of wet-lands somewhere else. Similarly, emissions from new coal burning operations must be offset by reductions in emissions elsewhere.

The quantification of damage should be transparent in the environmental impact assessment; and the corrective offsetting proof comes as a credit. Until a credit is approved by government, the development sits on hold, driving up project costs by millions. Non-compliance leaves business interests liable for additional hefty punitive lawsuits, bankruptcy, or foreclosure.

To avoid these before-or-after costs, businesses seek out credits generated by third-party projects for environmental services in advance of their proposed development—and pay handsomely for them. A lucrative national market is emerging for those credits in many areas of the environment such as endangered species habitat conservation, wetlands mitigation banking, emissions trading, and water quality trading credits. Demand for these credits, however, currently outstrips supply because it is hard to manufacture a functional artificial wetland (or carbon sink, or fish habitat) where nature never intended one in the first place.

It is easier to re-create healthy wetlands, fresh air, and spawning grounds where they thrived during the pre-dam millennia. In short, the average obsolete dam may be worth far more broken up than left intact; the sum of its removed parts are worth more than the integrated whole. Busting the dam could release a net gain in legitimate, measurable economic value, which can be brought to market and sold to willing buyers.

TESTING THE MARKET

How realistic is this approach? It’s early, but variations of the business model have been tested before. Consider several cases around the country:

  • In North and South Carolina, two innovative restoration engineers [referring to George Howard and John Preyer, although RS is not an engineering firm] who qualified for wetlands credits have begun to make money off dam removal for their restoration and wetlands mitigation business .
  • When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required the removal of Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine on the Kennebec River, the cost of removal was financed in large part by upstream industrial interests as part of their mitigation for environmental compliance. .
  • In northern Wisconsin, the regional power company bought and removed two weak dams in exchange for a 25-year operating license to operate three healthier ones on the same watershed. .
  • Funds generated by the Bonneville Power Administration for the Columbia River Basin in Oregon are being used to pay for dam removals on its tributaries. .

I wish I could say my idea is original. In truth I’m just following established models.

When I recently described this concept to one of my finance friends, a former investment banker, he likened my venture to that of Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” who, in the 1980s, brought discipline to a neglected financial field that had grown soft and complacent. Buying and breaking up unproductive firms, his predatory approach, like mine to obsolete dams, erased dysfunctional inventory. Conversely, ‘bonds’ that remain grow progressively stronger, tighter, healthier and more vigorous through the process. Deadbeat dams can once again become lucrative assets.

For the last decade JAMES G. WORKMAN has helped: U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pioneer consensus-based dam removal; Nelson Mandela articulate the landmark World Commission on Dams; and the government of Karnataka, India reverse its destructive spiral of groundwater over-pumping. He can be reached at jgworkman@hotmail.com.

By James G. Workman

Officials Celebrate North River Farms Project

State says effort is an example of meeting needs of environment, food production and the military


FREEDOM ENC

NORTH RIVER — “No wetlands; no seafood.”

The North Carolina Coastal Federation bumper sticker — so familiar to the locals — made quite an impression on a high-ranking federal official when he saw it.

“To me it was a great message and a great way to sum up the impact of our estuaries,” said Timothy Keeney, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Another Coastal Federation effort, one that puts the slogan to work, made an even bigger impression.

The North River Farms wetlands restoration project is one of many across the nation to receive money over the past 10 years through a partnership between Restore America’s Estuaries and NOAA’s Community-based Restoration Program.

“This is one of, I would say, the most prominent ones,” Keeney said. “I’ve never seen anything on this scale before.”

Keeney and other dignitaries gathered last week at Ocean Grounds Farm in Carteret County to commemorate the completion of 500 habitat restoration projects under the partnership. It was one of a series of such celebrations around the country, Keeney said.

What makes the North River Farms project so unique is that it is on an ecosystem scale, Keeney said.

It is dealing with land-based activities that impact coastal rivers that feed into ocean waters, Keeney said.

And it is not just restoring ecological benefits, but cultural and economical benefits to the commercial fishing communities, said Steve Emmett-Mattox, vice president of Restore America’s Estuaries.

“We consider the project to be a wonderful investment,” Emmett-Mattox said.

The project is also an example of how to, at once, meet the needs of food production, military space and environmental health, said William Ross, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“If ever there was a moment to celebrate the power of partnership, it’s this day; if ever there was a moment to celebrate the power of teamwork, it’s this day; if ever there was a moment to celebrate the power of innovation, it’s this day,” Ross said.

North River Farms wetlands restoration

* The Coastal Federation purchased 4,159 acres of the 6,000-acre North River Farms in 1999 and 2002 with two Clean Water Management Trust Fund grants totaling $4 million.

* So far, 540 acres of the drained farm has been turned back to wetlands.

* A private hunting club, 1804 Wildlife Partners, plans to buy 1,435 acres, which will be restored as a waterfowl impoundment. Restoration Systems, a mitigation company, purchased another 368 acres.

* In all, the Coastal Federation 10-year plan calls for the restoration of up to 5,100 acres to act as a wetland buffer for the 44,000-acre Open Grounds Farm, which drains to North River and Wards Creek.

Source: N.C. Coastal Federation

‘Living Shoreline’ Comes to Life at Carteret Community College

(Restoration Systems has had an ongoing involvement with the North River Farms through collaboration with the NCCF.  This article highlights some of the happenings surrounding the project this summer.)

After nearly four years of planning and numerous meetings with experts and agencies, restoration of the Bogue Sound shoreline at the Carteret Community College in Morehead City is underway. 

Unlike many of NCCF’s smaller, residential shoreline projects, the project at the college is bold, both in its size and in the diversity of design elements.  The goal was to combine the most up-to-date erosion-control technology with a strong desire to restore habitat and provide water quality protection for Bogue Sound. 

The result?  An approach that includes two breakwaters, which are larger, segmented stone structures, more commonly found along Chesapeake Bay’s high energy bluff shorelines.  The breakwaters are placed farther offshore than the smaller sills, and are designed to replicate stable headland embayments found naturally along many estuarine shorelines.  Over 14,000 marsh plants were planted landward of the breakwaters, providing an additional habitat and stabilization for the eroding shoreline. 

The project also contains several experimental structures, using oyster-reef building domes and erosion control pyramids created from bags of oyster shells.  Both designs will test the ability of non-traditional measures to enhance oyster-reef habitat, while standing up to the strong storms that batter this shoreline.  Finally, a newly created wetland will be used to pre-treat stormwater run-off from the college campus before it reaches Bogue Sound.  Project construction and initial plantings were finished in August, with further plantings taking place throughout the next year.  Even after completion, the site will serve as a living laboratory for years to come. 

A Greener North River Farms

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what do you earn when the picture starts to become a reality?  For several years, NCCF and our partners have pictured cleaner water and thriving wetland habitats in place of farm fields at North River Farms in Eastern Carteret County.  Designs have been made, proposals have been written, and volunteers have thrown themselves headlong into the muddy work of restoring wetlands.  And now, all that hard work is starting to pay off—the picture is starting to get rosier (or greener) as the farm starts to look more like a wetland again. 

More than 550 acres of the farm have been restored to wetlands so far, with 230 more acres scheduled for restoration this year.  Halfway completed, the current phase will restore more than 100 acres of tidal and freshwater streams and floodplains in the headwaters of Deep Creek.  Plantings this winter will complete the restoration of 35 acres of tidal wetlands, almost 50 acres of forested wetlands, and more than 6,000 feet of stream.  Over 80,000 wetland plugs have already been planted during the summer of 2006. 

The result has been a much “greener” North River Farms, with wetland vegetation taking up nutrients and filtering storm water before it reaches Deep Creek and the North River.  And that’s a picture worth celebrating. 

A Learning Vacation

Many North Carolinians know about Cape Lookout National Seashore, fifty-six miles of undeveloped barrier islands from Ocracoke Inlet to Beaufort Inlet.  However, a recent partnership between national seashore staff and NCCF has given summer tourists and area locals alike a chance to explore the southern section of this dynamic and beautiful island chain. 

This is the second summer that NCCF has offered educational programs at Cape Lookout: a Barrier Island Ecology program and, new this year, a Tidal Flats Exploration program.  During the ecology program, participants travel from one side of the island to the other, learning about plant and animal adaptations, barrier island migration, and current issues the islands face. 

The tidal flats program has proven very popular with all ages.  At low tide every other week, participants hike along the tidal flats on Core Sound, searching for shellfish, crabs, sand dollars and other critters. 

NCCF staff and interns enjoy leading the programs and meeting interesting people from all over the world and they also enjoy Cape Lookout as a summer office.  In the past two years, more than 700 people have come to learn why Cape Lookout National Seashore is so special.  We hope they will pass in this information wherever they live.  

Life awaits beyond Lowell

Life Awaits Beyond Lowell

Life awaits beyond LowellGeorge Howard stood on a high bank of the Little River in southern Johnston County, arms crossed like an impatient father.

A kingfisher chattered down the run as it flew to a perch.

Downstream, a trio of “fishermen” kept Howard’s attention.  One, Tom Dickinson, was wading the shallow stretch with a portable generator on his back while colleagues Chris Sheats and Shay Garriock walked abreast with nets scooping up fish stunned by the electrical charge.  All were employees of the Catena Group, an environmental consulting company.

The reason for this assembly–hickory shad–were notably absent that day.  Howard’s company, Restoration Systems, had managed the removal of the Lowell Dam during December and January.  One of the main reasons for the dam removal was to aid the recovery of anadromous fish such as shad, herring and striped bass.  Anadramous fish live in saltwater and spawn in freshwater.  Some salmon on both coasts may come to mind.

With the removal of the dam, a $4.3 million project, the Little River, a tributary of the Neuse River, had 39 miles of potential spawning grounds opened for these species, though low water levels looked to be keeping the shad downstream.  But shad aren’t the only focus on this remote stretch of river; the impact on the native (or endemic) finfish and shellfish species also is under study.

“The Catena Group did the pre-dam [removal] investigative work for the fish, mussels and snails,” said water-clad Randy Turner, a former Department of Transportation biologist who now is a senior scientist with Restoration Systems, “Catena has two contracts with us–one for the anadromous fish (are they returning?) and one to see if the endemic fish are reshuffling, redistributing over the entire river system.  In addition, they’re looking at mussel distribution.”

None of this would have been possible a year ago.  The Lowell Dam, near Kenly, had blocked the river since 1810.  Dams can be good for the fisherman because the structures cause fish to stack up during their annual spawning runs.  Dams are bad for the fish, though, because the obstacles can keep them from reaching optimal spawning areas.  Dams also can be dangerous for people because drownings can occur in turbulent waters.

Still, removing a landmark such as the Lowell Dam can sause some consternation among locals who have grown accustomed to it.  Even Restoration Systems’ donation of 16 acres of land to Johnston County for a river park didn’t appease some.

“There were some folks around who weren’t for it,” Gary Scott of Kenly said.  “But they backed off after a while.”

Scott’s family owns and farms the land around the former dam site and gave permission for the removal project.  Scott appreciates the work that has been done.

“We’re getting the river back to where God made it,” he said.

Scott, who also is an avid outdoorsman, keeps an eye on the river and potential changes caused by the removal of the dam.

“If you follow the river up [stream], there was a place called the Duck Pond.  But since the dam has been removed, the duck hunting is as good as it’s ever been,” Scott said.

Scott also said several drownings that occurred there over the years were a factor in the decision to let the dam be removed.  Looking ahead in time after the park opens, the family worries about traffick and trash.

“I hope the people will understand we’re still farming the land right next to it,” he said.  “But you can never have enough public places for people, picnic or fish.

Tradeoffs

This project–and others like it–is funded by stream degredation.  Much of the Lowell project, Howard said, was funded as a result of construction projects such as the Outer Loop around Raleigh and the Highway 70 bypass around Clayton.

According to the Clean Water Act, when a developer or entity such as the N.C. Department of Treansportation affects a stream or wetland, it must mitigate, or compensate for, the damage by restoring another area within the watershed in which the original work was done.  The entity doesn’t have to do the work itself; it can purchase “credits” which are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Armey Corps of Engineers, the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.  Companies such as Restoration Systems develop the credits by restoring wetlands and streams under tight regulatory and scientific oversight.

“Preservation and conservation are noble things,” Howard said as he watched the Catena crew work the shallows, “But, in order to get ahead, we need to restore what we previously destroyed.  It’s good for the environment, and its good for business.”

Approximately 750 tracts of land adjoin the newly reopened section of the river, and, Howard said, that means there are now 750 more pieces of land where people can fish for anadromous fish.

Howard said that his company has 25 mitigation sites in the state, including 5,000 acres of wetlands and 25 miles of streams and creeks.  He estimated the value of the restoration contracts for those sites at about $50 million.

Hopping site to site

After finishing their sampling below the old dam and finding no shad present, the Catena biologist headed downstream to sample another stretch of river.

During two weeks of testing, no shad had been caught, probably because of the low water flow that has affected even traditional shad runs on rivers such as the Roanoke.  The dearth of shad didn’t seem to bother the Catena crew.  There was plenty of aquatic life to keep them occupied.

“This is some of the strongest environment I’ve seen for endemic species,” said Dickinson,27, of Chapel Hill.

The Catena crew also smapled a third site on the river–the base of the Atkinson’s Mill Dam, the next dam upriver.  Sheats and Dickinson worked a gill net in the current while Garriock walked gingerly and probed the water just behind the dam.  The netters caught about a dozen shad–huge 14-inchers–but these were resident gizzard shad, not the transient hickory or American.

They will come

Not to worry, said Joe Hightower, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey stationed at N.C. State.  Hightower, who conducts shad studies on other N.C. rivers, is confident the newly opened stretch of the Little River will host shad soon.

“The low water has got them off track,” he said.  “When I fished recreationally in the past, the American shad would stack up right at the dam.”

Hightower said the removal of the dam will benefit shad most because striped bass will tend to stay in the main river.

“American shad seek out areas with coarser substrates like gravel or cobble to spawn,” he said.  “With every dam that’s removed, the farther up the watershed they can go.

“The farther up the Little River they go, the more of that gravel and cobblestone they’ll find.”

And the more rock they find, the more eggs they will lay, completing their cycle of life.  A;; because of a dam no longer there.

Staff writer Mike Zlotnicky can be reached at 829-4518 or mikez@newsobserver.com

Company putting new life in Lick Creek

SANFORD – A Raleigh-based environmental restoration firm working to redirect Lick Creek northeast of Sanford recently discovered animal life in the creek and is making efforts to preserve as much of it as possible.

By Gordon Anderson
Staff Writer

Restoration Systems, LLC is performing a restoration project on 9,500 feet of the Lick Creek, which crosses Lower Moncure Road near Riddle Road. The company is rerouting parts of the stream, which currently runs more or less in a straight line, by digging a new canal and adding several bends.

Worth Creech, the project’s manager, said the restoration was necessary because various factors – including cattle getting into the stream and eroding the banks, typical aging and even construction on the nearby U.S. 421 bypass project – were leading to the wearing down of the stream, which runs through several rural residential and agricultural tracts.

Creech said that last week, however, biologists working for Restoration Systems discovered four species of mussels living in the banks of the stream. Although none of the mussel species are endangered – and Restoration Systems is not required to save them – Creech said he and others involved in the projects are saving them anyway.

Creech, along with biologists Randy Turner and Tim Savidge, spent Friday wading through the stream and picking up mussels by hand. The expedition was the second of its type, and Creech said he expects to make at least three or four more trips to collect mussels.

Once they’ve collected enough, the mussels will be kept in water and placed back in the stream. Creech said that while the company isn’t required to save the mussels, they think it’s the right thing to do.

“It sets us back a little bit, but it’s really not that hard,” he said. “We’ll be doing this throughout the length of the process.”

Creech estimated that the project will reach its next step – physically diverting the water from the existing creek into the first stretch of the new canal – within the next two weeks.

Restoration Systems has set up the process so that the end result will be as permanent as possible. The company bought easements from five landowners along the stream. The company-owned land was placed into conservation easements – meaning the land can never be developed in the future – and will be held by Restoration Systems. Fences will be set up to keep the cattle away from the stream.

Creech described the process as a necessary move to preserve the land’s character.

“It may look like we’re out here tearing things down,” he said. “But it’s one of those situations where you have to destroy a little bit to preserve the environment.”

Firm Proposes Removal of Cape Fear Dams

Restoration Systems Performing Similar Work in Carbonton, NC

CARBONTON, NC (AP) Every tut-tut-tut of the hydraulic hammer into the remnants of the old hydroelectric dam brings the campaign to “Clear the Cape Fear” of manmade obstacles a small step — and chunk of concrete — closer to fruition.

Standing on the banks near the gaping hole that had been carved into the 270-ft.-long concrete and earthen dam, George Howard pointed to the water gushing through the breach. “We’re returning this river to its colonial days,” said Howard, vice president and co-founder of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based environmental mitigation firm.

A century ago, migratory fish such as shad, herring and sturgeon ran thick from the Atlantic all the way up past Fayetteville and into the headwaters of the Cape Fear to spawn.

But today a half-dozen dams block their path.

Built decades or even centuries ago to harness the river for commercial traffic and as a source of power, the dams continue to influence the Cape Fear even as they have largely outlived their purpose.

The three locks run by the Army Corps of Engineers along the Lower Cape Fear, for example, are now opened only to provide passage to migratory fish. The commercial traffic they were built to serve dried up long ago, and recreational boats have slowed to a trickle.

Restoration Systems wants to change that by removing most of the structures, including possibly all three of the lock and dams.

Carbonton Project Similar

The roughly $8.2 million dam-removal project here along the Deep River, one of the river’s headwaters, offers a blueprint as to how the company would approach the Cape Fear facilities.

The Carbonton Dam, constructed in 1921, has not been used to generate electricity for nearly a year-and-a-half, said Project Manager Randy Turner.

Work began in the fall, but has mostly centered around clearing regulatory hurdles.

“We haven’t had any difficulties with any of the agencies, it has just taken awhile to go through the process,” Turner said.

Workers have completed some grading of the substrate areas.

In addition, crews dewatered the structure slowly to reduce the stress on waterlife downstream. During the dewatering process, crews discovered their colleagues who built the dam 90-some years ago left the old timber cofferdam structures in place, which trapped sediment behind

Turner said the contractor, Backwater Environmental of Pittsboro, NC, will rely on tracked equipment when the dismantling of the dam structure begins, as it makes it easier to get around a riverbed. Trackhoes will demolish the structure and tracked hopper trucks will haul the material — approximately 1,500 cu. yds. of concrete, plus some tree debris — from the river onto dry land.

No wetlands are associated with the Deep River, so Turner expects to haul the material away from the site with rubber-tired trucks. It will be buried off-site.

The Carbonton Dam, tucked into this quiet corner of the hilly Sandhills equidistant from Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro, wasn’t in good shape before the heavy equipment moved in.

“It was basically an abandoned dam,” Howard said, ticking off a slew of safety and structural problems. The 17-ft.-high dam, which was built in 1921, is the latest in a series of dams that has sought to harness this stretch of the Deep River.

But man’s push to control nature has remade nearly 11 mi. of waterway above the dam.

From a free-flowing river, the Deep has turned into a slow-moving waterway that has lost many of its natural characteristics. Instead of native mussels and a stable population of Cape Fear shiner, an endangered freshwater minnow, the largely stagnant stretch of river became home to catfish, carp and bass.

“There are a lot of fish species up there, but not what would be in there naturally,” said Ryan Heise, a biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. The dam also blocked the flow of material downstream, leaving a mass of material wedged against the structure.

“The downstream part of this river is sediment-starved, which would be the same case in the Cape Fear River,” Howard said as a trackhoe removed a picnic table-size chunk of concrete from the broken dam.

Turner said that with a low river level and a recent lack of rain, crews are now at a point where they can begin the major part of the demolition work. He expects the job will be completed by the end of January.

Work Would Restore River

Howard said the two upper lock and dams, both in Bladen County, were ranked among the five dams whose removal would be most beneficial to the environment by the NC Dam Removal Task Force. The group is a multi-agency group looking at dams that pose problems for the environment.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of damage done to that river, and we see abundant restoration opportunities along the Cape Fear,” he said.

Biologists agree.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the dams are a tremendous break on the river’s ability to produce fish,” said Mike Wicker, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Raleigh office. “Here we have a potentially very productive system that’s being denied this productivity by these dams.”

But there are plenty of rapids to navigate before heavy equipment could begin dismantling the structures. Regulatory and operational issues must be tackled. It would literally require an act of Congress.

Corps officials have said the agency can’t just turn the proverbial keys to the locks over to the private sector — even though the agency has been pushing for years to get out of the Cape Fear dam business.

“The bottom line is they are an authorized project, and before we or anybody else can do anything to them they have to be de-authorized, and that requires an act of Congress,” said corps biologist Frank Yelverton.

“And we can’t go to Congress until we have a report.”

The corps is reviewing its mitigation requirements for the ongoing Wilmington Harbor Deepening project, which could include a recommendation on the fate of the lock and dams.

Some eyebrows also have been raised about Restoration System’s zeal to invest its time and money to remove the dams. The Carbonton project is the first dam removal in North Carolina primarily for mitigation purposes.

Howard doesn’t deny that his company is in the dam-removal business to make a profit. The Carbonton project will generate mitigation credits for the NC Department of Transportation and Siler City. But he said the concept makes development a driver instead an enemy of conservation.

“On the one hand, we’re helping growth,” Howard said. “On the other hand, we’re re-growing resources that were lost a long time ago. “We really do see it as a win-win proposition.”

But removing a dam isn’t as simply as hauling heavy equipment into a river or using a few sticks of dynamite.

The areas above the Cape Fear’s lock and dams, as above the Carbonton Dam, have adapted to the new environment.

They also have become recreational draws, providing important economic boosts to rural communities that don’t have a lot else going for them.

The impoundment areas behind the dams also are home to the water intakes for several communities in the watershed, including Wilmington and Fayetteville. Howard said his company is sensitive to the needs and concerns of the community and would work with all stakeholders to mitigate any problems caused by the dam removal.

“This would be a fairly complex arrangement, and one that could take a lot of work on both sides,” he said. “But the essential proposal is fairly straightforward.”

For instance, the company plans to give the NC Wildlife Resources Commission $20,000 to replace or modify a boat ramp that’s been left dry just above the Carbonton Dam as water levels have fallen. The old dam site also will be turned into an 8-acre public park.

Howard also said that dam removal isn’t a process that happens overnight. The Carbonton Dam removal is a 10-year project, with half of that dedicated to environmental monitoring after the dam is removed.

Heise, the state biologist, also cautioned about rushing into any removal project. “You have to look at what ecological benefits are you going to obtain and at what cost, and some of the time it’s very clear,” he said. “At Carbonton, it was a no-brainer. But these types of projects need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”

While any possible action on the corps’ lock and dams is probably years off, the seed has been planted for their removal.

Howard said he’s already broached the idea with officials in Washington and Raleigh and received positive feedback.

But he understands that not everyone will be happy to see the dams go. Sitting on the front porch of his small house a stone’s throw from the now less-than Deep River, John Humphrey reminisced about how his father brought him to the dam’s impoundment to fish and how he did the same with his kids and grandkids.

“It’s sort of like losing something you’ve grown up with,” he said, the thump of the hydraulic hammer echoing through the tree-covered hills. “But if there’s a reason for it, OK. But a lot of people around here are going to miss it.”

CEG contributed to this report.

Project Turns the River Wild

CARBONTON — It’s Randleman Reservoir in reverse.

Taft Wireback
Staff Writer

Thirty miles downstream from the new structure in northern Randolph County, another dam across the Deep River is coming down just as the Piedmont Triad’s newest lake is about to take final shape.

Environmental crews recently began tearing down the Carbonton Dam, lowering what had been a lake 25 feet deep in spots and stretching back nearly 10 miles.

Soon, the river in that area will look similar to its appearance in the 19th century.

The $8.25 million demolition — on the line between Chatham and Lee counties — is aimed at improving the river’s overall environmental health. It also will be a counterweight to environmental damage caused by other projects in the region, enabling road and other construction projects to go forward in line with federal environmental standards.

The driving force behind the Carbonton demotion is an environmental firm, Restoration Systems LLC, with offices in the Greensboro and Raleigh.

“We’ve been working on this project for five years.

It’s been a real commitment for us,” said Greensboro native George Howard, co-founder of the seven-year-old company.

“And we’ll be following it up for the next five years, monitoring what happens at 53 different testing locations,” said Howard, whose partner in the firm is fellow Greensboro native John Preyer.

The existing dam — or what’s left of it — dates to 1921. But some type of dam has been at the site about two centuries.

Howard said a reasonable way to make room for new dams such as Randleman is to remove earlier projects that, such as Carbonton, have outlived their usefulness.

“Yes, it’s disappointing that new dams and reservoirs have to be built,” he said. “But on the other hand, we can undo some of the damage that we have done” elsewhere.

Dams are not popular with environmentalists because they disrupt a river’s natural flow, changing the kinds of water plants and creatures that can thrive. But they are needed as sources of drinking water and, in some cases, electrical power.

The demolition of Carbonton’s former hydroelectric dam is being done to accumulate environmental “offsets,” or credits, linked to successfully returning that section of the Deep to its natural, unobstructed composition.

Credits from the Carbonton project will go to the state Department of Transportation and to nearby Siler City, allowing the state to keep building or improving roads and the city to expand its existing reservoir.

Road building and reservoir expansion detract from existing streams by changing their most basic features; for example, a creek might be piped through a large culvert so a highway can be built across it. Federal law requires both public and private developers offset such damage by protecting or restoring other streams in the same, general vicinity.

Howard’s company is working with a state program, the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program, which administers the resulting “stream mitigation” credits.

Just like the construction of Randleman Reservoir, the destruction of Carbonton Dam is not universally popular.

Residents of the crossroads community in southern Chatham County have grown accustomed to the lake and the recreation it provided, with depths great enough for motorboats.

“It’s just been a big fishing hole for everybody and they don’t like losing it,” said Crystal Phillips, cashier at Jim’s Cash Mart up the road from the former hydroelectric dam.

Removal will lower river levels by as much as 20 feet, turning that stretch into a stream suitable for canoes and kayaks, but no longer deep enough for motorboats.

Fish and other aquatic life will change also, meaning that such species as bass and catfish might not be as plentiful.

Project proponents say the free-flowing river will bring other recreational benefits.

The project includes a 5.5-acre, public park on the site, to be maintained by the nonprofit Triangle Land Conservancy.

The conservancy oversees several other sites on the Deep. It envisions boaters being able to put in at Carbonton and paddle to those other sites for such pursuits as hiking or picnicking, conservancy director Kevin Brice said.

“We see this as a ‘blue way’ as opposed to a green way,” Brice said of the newly emancipated river.

The dam at Carbonton was operated for years by Carolina Power & Light and, later, by a small energy company based in Burlington. But the hydroelectric operation was shut down in June 2004.

The two dams’ opposite points on the life cycle aren’t the only contrasts between Randleman Reservoir and the Carbonton project.

Experts said that building a lake at Randleman will help the environment by requiring the cleanup of several polluted sites along the river. It also will help by creating a large pool where urban and industrial pollutants can settle out or deteriorate in the slower flow, they said.

But in the rural, lower Deep River, environmental scientists said restoring the river’s natural, faster current would make the water richer in oxygen.

That would allow a native fish — the endangered Cape Fear Shiner to repopulate a stretch of river it hasn’t been able to inhabit for a long time, scientists said.

The dam was partly torn down in late November, allowing the impounded water to drain slowly and return the river to its natural level.

In the coming weeks, Restoration Systems will remove the rest of dam and, eventually, begin work on the park.

Then will come years of monitoring long-range changes in the river both underwater and along its newly exposed banks.

Howard says restoration projects like Carbonton Dam are the wave of the future because developers will continue to need environmental credits to make up for their impact on the landscape.

Contact Taft Wireback at 373-7100 or twireback@news-record.com