Finally Running Free

Small stream dams have been a part of the Eastern North Carolina scenery so long that even the old-timers can’t remember what it was like before they were built.  Some powered grist mills, others produced that newfangled electricity to illuminate the homes, barns and lives of rural and small folks many decades ago.  But for all the benefits they once provided, the dams environmental impact was significant.

Now with the roar of dynamite and the growl of heavy equipment, more and more of the old dams are being dismantled to recreate free-flowing streams across the region.  It is a project that will benefit the streams, the aquatic life that calls them home and the human visitors who like to fish, paddle or simply loaf aling their banks.

The impact of even one small dam can be far reaching.  Last week crews began removing the Lowell Dam on the Little River in Johnston County.  The demolition not only will return the Little River to its natural past, but Buffalo Creek, Little Buffalo Creek and Long Branch also will be opened to migrating fish for the first time in many generations.

And the fish are ready to come.  One Johnston County farmer whose family once owned the Lowell Dam said thousands of shad had begun gathering each spring on the downstream side of the dam since the 1999 removal of the Rains Mill Dam furhter down-river near Princeton.  Environtmentalists say that removing the Lowell Dam will open 39 miles of area streams to migratory fish.

Free-flowing water also helps flush away pollution.  All-in-all, the result of opening these creeks and rivers will be a more natural and healthier environment.  That’s a plus for every living thing.

Torpedo the dams!

Expect waterways flush with migratory fish once outdated dams are dust

Wade Rawlins
Staff Writer

Three blasts of dynamite turned the 10-foot-thick Lowell Dam into a crazed wall of concrete rubble that backhoes began scooping away this week.

Soon, the Little River will return to a shallow, rock-riffled waterway that feeds the Neuse. And by spring, migratory fish such as shad, herring and striped bass will have free passage from the Atlantic Ocean up the Little River and Buffalo Creek almost to Wake County.

The Lowell Dam, near Kenly in Johnston County, is the fourth dam on the Neuse and Little rivers to fall since 1998 in an effort to restore free-flowing waters in the river basin and reopen historic spawning grounds.

For species such as herring, greater areas for spawning means a chance to reverse declining populations. More abundant fish means more opportunity for people who enjoy catching and eating them and for commercial fishermen who depend on catches to make a living.

"It’s the first time since 1810 that [migratory] fish have been able to pass this far upstream into the Piedmont," said George Howard, co-founder of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh company that specializes in environmental restoration and undertook the dam removal.

Nearby, at the border of Lee, Chatham and Moore counties, another outdated impoundment, the Carbonton Dam, is coming down to restore habitat for the Cape Fear shiner, a small endangered minnow. The fish is found only in a few places in the Deep River and other tributaries of the Cape Fear River.

Dam removals restore habitat for aquatic species. In coming months, on the newly exposed mud flats behind Lowell Dam, restoration crews will roll out mats of coconut fiber seeded with rye grass and plant trees there to stabilize the river banks.

New role in river’s life

Gary Scott, 33, a Johnston County farmer whose family once owned the dam, stood on the bank watching the yellow backhoes scoop up chunks of concrete. Scott said the structure had served its purpose powering a mill to grind grain, and its removal was good for the environment.

"It will give the folks upstream a chance to catch some of these shad that we have been hogging," Scott said.

Scott said he had seen thousands of shad gathered at the Lowell Dam each spring — blocked by the structure from swimming further. The fish had made their way to the Lowell Dam only since 1999, when the Rains Mill Dam downstream near Princeton was removed.

"You can come down here in early spring, and people are just lined up here fishing," he said. "There are people trying to catch them by hand."

Historically, the Neuse River and its tributaries produced more American shad than any other river in the state. The dams have been a barrier to the spring spawning run of the species, which has declined dramatically in commercial catches. Large migrations of American shad are expected to occur next spring in the stretch of river above the Lowell Dam.

Tim Savidge, an aquatic biologist with the Catena Group, an environmental consulting company involved in the project, said removing the dam should provide more suitable habitat not only for fish, but for several species of endangered mussels. The dwarf-wedge mussel and Tar River spinymussel are among those that will benefit. Some species of freshwater mussels attach themselves to fish gills to move about as part of their reproduction process.

Before the demolition, Savidge and several divers were tagging mussels buried in the river bottom near the dam. They’ll survey the mussels in months ahead to determine how the dam’s removal has affected them and whether they’ve been choked by sediment moving downstream.

Since the removal of the Rains Mill Dam in 1999, Savidge said he had found species of mussels that had been found only below the dam beforehand, indicating they were expanding their presence in the river. He expects to observe a similar pattern after this dam removal.

"Just a simple thing like changing the speed at which a river flows changes the aquatic habitat," said Adam Riggsbee, a graduate student in environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is doing research on the dam removals.

Both the Lowell and Carbonton dams were on a list of small dams compiled by state and federal agencies in 2002 that would benefit the environment by being removed. Other high-priority removals are two dams on the Cape Fear.

"We’re not trying to look at all dams and say they are bad," said Mike Wicker, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "We do think there are a small number of dams in North Carolina that are extremely bad for the environment. We’re trying to ferret out the ones that are atrocities for the environment and get rid of those."

Federal laws such as the Clean Water Act require a trade-off when development or highway construction harms the environment. The harm must be offset by an environmental good deed, such as a stream restoration or dam removal.

Ecological ‘credits’

But the state doesn’t actually have to do the restoration work itself. Instead, it can purchase "credits" from someone else who has done environmental restoration work.

Restoration Systems purchased the Lowell Dam, then won a $4.3 million state contract to sell its conservation credits generated by the removal. It is also removing the Carbonton Dam.

The state will use the credits to compensate for disturbance caused by state highway projects such as Raleigh’s Outer Loop. The number of credits is based on the length of the river that is restored by removing the dam.

"The Outer Loop is driving the removal of this dam and restoration of this river," Restoration’s Howard said.

Restoration Systems also plans to donate 17 acres for a public park and provide $140,000 as an endowment to maintain the park.

"The question is, what do we want our world to look like?" Howard said. "People have stated a strong preference to policy-makers that, ‘We want our world to bear some resemblance to that which we once knew.’ That includes fish and mussels."

Staff writer Wade Rawlins can be reached at 829-4528 or wrawlins@newsobserver.com.

Clearing the Cape Fear: Dams coming down to restore natural flow

CARBONTON — 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.

By Gareth McGrath
Staff Writer

Standing on the banks near the gaping hole that had been carved into the 270-foot-long concrete and earthen dam recently, George Howard pointed to the water gushing through the breach.

“We’re returning this river to its colonial days,” said Howard, vice president and cofounder 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.

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.

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 N.C. 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.”

An act of Congress

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 N.C. 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.”

Stagnant waters

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 last week.

“It was basically an abandoned dam,” Howard said, ticking off a slew of safety and structural problems.

The 17-foot-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 miles 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 N.C. 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 backhoe removed a picnic table-size chunk of concrete from the broken dam.

A changed environment

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 N.C. 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 a 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.”

Carbonton Dam Removal

Deep River will soon go with its flow

By Nomee Landis
Staff Writer

CARBONTON — The Deep River will begin falling this week behind the Carbonton Dam, the first step in removing the structure and freeing the river here.

Demolition of the dam is expected to be finished by late this year or early next year. A state task force in 2002 ranked it No. 4 on a list of impoundments that should be removed for environmental reasons.

The dam’s removal will return the Deep to its shallower, more natural flow patterns for more than nine miles. It will open 19 miles of the river to fisheries that were divided when the dam was built 84 years ago.

State wildlife and water quality staffers say dismantling the dam will significantly improve the health of the river and the wildlife it supports. Local anglers and those who live near the dam say they will lose something more than stone and brick when the structure falls.

It will take between one and two weeks to release enough water for engineers to get a good look at the dam and the river bottom behind it, said George Howard of Restoration Systems, the Raleigh company that is removing the dam. Howard is the founder and vice president of the company.

When the water has fallen low enough, engineers will decide whether sediments and debris behind the dam should be removed or allowed to move downstream later with the river’s currents. Howard said they also may discover the remnants of an old dam behind the existing one.

Once the dam is gone, Restoration Systems will build a park on the 5-acre site, on the south side of the river. The Triangle Land Conservancy will ultimately manage the park.

Restoration Systems does environmental mitigation. In this case, removing the dam will restore several miles of stream bank to its natural state. Such projects are used to compensate for the destruction of other, similar resources.

The town of Siler City plans to enlarge its dam on the Rocky River, a tributary of the Deep, to shore up drinking-water supplies. That project will destroy two miles of stream bank.

The Carbonton project is the “ideal mitigation for the loss of that resource,” Howard said. “It is not the perfect solution, but it is the best that can be arranged.”

The Carbonton project is the first of its kind, Howard said. Most stream-restoration projects involve returning channelized streams to their natural meandering states.

The demolition of the dam will lower the river level by between 13 and 16 feet, Howard said. That will make the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramp that lies just upstream unusable.

Howard said Restoration Systems is working with the commission to find an alternative ramp site. If a site is not found within 10 miles of the existing ramp, the company will pay the commission $20,000.

The park will offer a passive site where kayakers and canoeists can put their boats in the water, Howard said. Unless the water level is abnormally high, it will not be suitable for motor boats.

Something missing

Anglers who fish upstream of the dam in the lake-like stillness it creates say they will miss boating on and fishing in that deep water. And those who live around the dam say they will miss their community’s historic icon.

Gail Borg of Fayetteville has been fishing upstream of the Carbonton Dam with her husband, Jim, for years. He fishes for bass. She goes after the bream or the bluegill.

“It is so beautiful,” Gail Borg said. “The serenity is unbelievable. I will stop fishing just to look around, look at the wildlife.”

The couple uses the wildlife commission boat ramp. The dam’s demise will force them to go elsewhere, a prospect that gives them little pleasure.

“There are not many areas you can go and see what you can see and be able to fish and enjoy it,” Gail Borg said.

The Deep is a heavily dammed river. More than a dozen small hydropower dams still exist on the Deep. Construction of the Randleman Dam on the river in Randolph County was completed last year at a cost of about $85 million.

Bobby Diver grew up in the Carbonton area and raises chickens in Moore County, near the House in the Horseshoe. He does not want the dam demolished because it has been a part of the community for more than 80 years. He said a park will attract crime.

“I hate to see it taken out,” Diver said. “All it’s going to be is a little creek running through there — and a mess.”

Diver’s brother, Edward Diver, lives about a mile downstream of the dam. The river there is about 30 feet wide and knee-deep. He can still catch bass, catfish and bream in it, though.

Potential problems

In 2002, representatives of nine state and federal agencies, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the Wildlife Resources Commission, took part in the task force that ranked the dams according to their environmental effects.

Carbonton Dam was listed because of its adverse effects on water quality in the Deep River. Near the dam, the water’s stillness and depth make it susceptible to temperature variances and algal blooms. That can lead to low oxygen levels in the water and fish kills.

Tim Savidge is an environmental supervisor with the Catena Group, a small environmental consulting firm in Hillsborough. The company performed an aquatic life survey in the river as part of the dam-removal process, in part to look for rare species.

They found them, too. They found the endangered Cape Fear shiner, a minnow that lives only in a few places in the Cape Fear River basin. That was not really a surprise, Savidge said, because it is known to live in that area of the Deep River.

Finding a granddaddy Roanoke slabshell mussel was a surprise, though.

Some mussels can survive for more than a century, Savidge said. This particular specimen, the scientists surmised, probably has been around since before the Carbonton Dam was built.

Savidge said it is believed that the Roanoke slabshell depends on an anadromous fish species for its survival. That is a fish that lives in salt water but swims up fresh-water streams to spawn.

Juvenile mussels have a parasitic relationship with their host fish species, attaching themselves to the gills of their hosts. In this way, mussels are transported throughout a river system.

The Carbonton Dam as well as other downstream dams have isolated some mussel populations, preventing their reproduction.

Removing the Carbonton Dam, Savidge said, may not be enough for the Roanoke slabshell, but about six other mussel species and more than 20 other fish species will have more room and more habitat once the dam is gone.

Carbonton Dam

  • The dam is on the Deep River in the Carbonton community at the Lee-Moore county line.
  • It was built in 1921 and is 216 feet long and 16 to 18 feet tall.
  • The dam affects 9.3 miles of the Deep River.
  • Removing the dam will open 19 miles of habitat to downstream fisheries.

Scientists study effect on life in Little River as 1810 dam is removed


KENLY — Peering into into the yellowish, ankle-deep water of the Little River, marine researcher Tim Savidge has high hopes for the plentiful fish and mussels he spent the morning counting.

In his 15 years studying North Carolina rivers, he says, he has seen few sites as vibrant as this shallow stretch upstream from the soon-to-be-demolished Lowell Mill Dam.

When the concrete dam is broken up and hauled away this fall, Savidge hopes to document the river creatures’ return to what is now eight miles of deep water behind the dam. Restoration Systems, an environmental company based in Raleigh, is removing the 195-year-old dam. It hired Savidge’s company, The Catena Group, to measure the impact on fish and mussels.

Separately, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Adam Riggsbee is studying the effect on water quality, plant life and the shape of the riverbed.

Scientists hope the lessons learned at Lowell Mill will apply to a handful of dam removal projects in North Carolina and others throughout the United States.

"It will really expedite the removal of the dams that need to be removed and will educate us on which ones it would be a benefit to remove," said Mike Wicker, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Raleigh. "It will answer very decidedly some of the questions about how rivers respond to dam removal."

Is removal helpful?

Most of those questions revolve around whether a river actually benefits when a dam is removed.

The pace of dam removals nationwide quickened in the 1990s as many dams outlived their intended purposes. Nearly 200 dams were removed in that decade, according to the International Rivers Network, a nonprofit that promotes dam removal.

Like the Lowell Mill Dam, many of North Carolina’s 5,000 dams were built to power gristmills and are no longer in use. Proponents say removing them allows migratory fish to return to the rivers where they used to spawn.

But research has been slow to back up the environmental benefits. Most of the research has taken place in the Midwest, where dams are more often removed for safety reasons than environmental ones.

Researchers at N.C. State University have proved that ocean-dwelling fish will return to rivers after dams are removed. But they haven’t shown that the overall health of the river improves, Wicker said. Nor have they documented the return of mussels, which improve water quality by filtering out pollutants.

If conditions improve on the Little River, the demolition of three massive lock-and-dams along the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Fayetteville might speed up.

A test case

The removal of two dams on the Little and Neuse rivers has allowed shad and sturgeon to reach the Lowell Mill Dam, a simple concrete wall that spans the Little River near Interstate 95. The dam, built in 1810, raised the level of the river as much as 11 feet.

For his doctoral dissertation in environmental science, Riggsbee is tracking how plant life returns to the riverbed as the water recedes. He is also monitoring nutrients in the soil and water to see whether the area returns to its natural state.

In April, he and a dozen other students stayed at the dam all night to take water samples as water began to flow freely past the dam for the first time.

Back in Chapel Hill, Riggsbee keeps a greenhouse where he can simulate floods both before and after the dam’s removal.

As the water level recedes, rains will infuse the river with sudden bursts of nutrients that could be too much for some plants and animals.

"You can go too far with nutrients," Riggsbee said. "It’s like that last drink when you know you’ve had too many."

Restoration Systems has taken a gamble on buying and removing the Lowell Mill Dam, said co-founder George Howard.

The for-profit company will earn mitigation credits from the state for improving the environment there. It can sell the credits to developers who must compensate for felling trees or paving wetlands.

To get the credits, Restoration Systems must prove that fish and mussel populations increase after the dam is removed this fall.

Savidge and his team are counting mussels and fish so that they can compare their numbers after the dam is gone. So far, they have found many more mussels, including the endangered dwarf wedge and Tar spiny mussels, outside the impounded area.

Howard and his crew have been slowly lowering the water levels of the Little River for 18 months. Now, he said, it is almost as low as it will be when the dam is removed.

Locals aren’t all pleased about the change.

Power boats will no longer be able to use the river, and newly exposed logs make it unsightly and hard to navigate even in a canoe.

Howard said his company plans to clean up the river. The company is also giving Johnston County 17 acres near the dam for a park, along with a $140,000 endowment for its upkeep.

Riggsbee said local controversies over dam removal contribute to the dearth of research, because scientists are leery of projects that may fall through. He hopes his research will tip the scales on other projects.

"There’s a lot of hesitation to do it," he said. "No one really knows what removing a dam does. The rest of the state will look at what I’m doing and a few other researchers and evaluate if this is a good idea."

By Marti Maguire
Staff Writer

Dam project moves forward

Fetch your rod and reel. Dust off the canoe.

Within the next several months, a Raleigh company will tear down Lowell Mill dam on the Little River and turn a half-mile section of the waterway into a county park. The free low of water will bring back migratory fish – shad, herring, sturgeon and striped bass – and open up 88 square miles of new fishing territory.

On Monday, County Commissioners accepted an offer of 17 acres of land along the river and an endowment of $140,000 to maintain the property as a park.

The park will be developed by Restoration Systems, a company that restores natural areas as mitigation credits, then sells them to agencies that disrupt wetlands, streams or forest buffers.

George Howard, a partner at Restoration Systems, said work on the land would likely start in April.

A rope-and-post fence would be erected across the length of the park to create a boundary with the adjoining private property. A gravel parking lot, interpretive signs and picnic tables would be added. The work would also include some general cleaning up.

Howard said the dam would come down in the fall when temperatures cool off. “We don’t want hot, still water running down the river,” he added.

Howard said that Restoration Systems has a contract to buy 17 acres from the J.F. Scott family. And he said that the land on the north side of the river, which doesn’t have a road access, joins a large tract of land already under a conservation easement.

Commissioner Ray Woodall said the county needed to move forward with the deal. The company first pitched its proposal in November.

Howard said the company would transfer ownership once the park was complete. And it would also give the county the endowment in one payment, rather than in two as earlier proposed.

The dam, built in 1810 to power a gristmill, has been a popular fishing and swimming hole. But during the past 15 years, three people have drowned – one as recently as 2000.

Johnston lays ground for park

County accepts offer of land

County commissioners accepted a company’s proposal Monday to create Johnston’s first county-owned park at the site of the Lowell Mill Dam outside Kenly.

The 17-acre park will provide public access along a stretch of the Little River near Interstate 95 for fishing and other activities.

Restoration Systems, LLC has a federal permit to remove the dam, which a state task force has said will replenish populations of migratory fish, such as sturgeon and striped bass, in the river.

In November, the company offered the three-fourths of an acre of land it owns to the county for use as a park, along with an endowment of $140,000.

Partner and founder George Howard said the company also would throw in a parking lot, rope-and-post fencing and interpretive signs on the history of the dam and the ecology of the river.

Since then, the company has agreed to buy more land, enlarging the park offer to 17 acres.

Commissioners were skeptical of the plan, voicing concerns about the cost of upkeep and being held responsible for accidents at the park.

The dam is already a popular, if perilous, fishing spot. At least three people have drowned there, caught underneath currents created by the dam.

Under the new agreement, the county will sidestep the liability caused by the dam by taking over the park only after the dam is removed in the fall.

Interest from the endowment will be used to pay for maintenance, and insurance for the park, officials said.

Chairwoman Cookie Pope said the park will provide much-needed recreation for county residents. She also acknowledged that owning the park is an oddity for a county that has shunned the idea of creating a county recreation department.

“It’s one of those things that just falls in your lap,” Pope said. “It was an excellent offer and one we just couldn’t turn down.”

Restoration Systems specializes in environmental mitigation. It buys sites and improves their environmental status, then sells what are called “mitigation credits” to companies that need them to be compensated for the environmental problems that come with development.

Howard said the company has donated more than 600 acres for conservation and recreation after other projects it has completed.

“This is something we are doing for the long-term benefit of our company and to leave a good project behind,” Howard said.

Pay-and-Pave System Leaves Wetlands Behind

Restorations by state agency nominal after 5 years, millions in funding

By James Eli Shiffer

Staff Writer

In the past five years, the state department of Transportation and real estate developers have paved over at least 100 acres of wetlands and 16 miles of streams to make way for a wider interstate 85 in Durham, the N.C. 55 bypass around Holly Springs, Wakefield Plantation and roads, bridges and buildings across the state.

With each project, the developers have written a check to a little-known state agency that by law must use the money to restore twice that amount of wetlands and streams to the landscape.  Since its creation in 1997, the N.C. Wetlands Restoration Program has collected $58 million from N.C. DOT, private developers, state appropriations, grants and interest.

But to date, the agency has restored 10 of the minimum 205 acres.  It has reconstructed less than five miles of stream.  Of the 22 projects the program told lawmakers would be built by last summer, not one has started.  Most of the money – $47 million – is sitting unspent in state bank accounts, according to a News & Observer analysis of the agency’s finances.

The program’s troubles in carrying out its environmental rescue mission have led some lawmakers to say that this state-run “pay and pave” system isn’t working and it’s time to turn over the responsibilities to the private sector.  Lawmakers have taken back $3.4 million from the program after it sat on the money for four years.

“This has been a wonderful attempt to do the right thing.  It’s time to try something else,” said state Rep. Pryor Gibson, a Montgomery County Democrat and co-chairman of a legislative committee that oversees the program.  “It’s time to say, ‘Guys, this ain’t working.’”

Supporters of the Wetlands Restoration Program say it’s ready to execute a flurry of projects across the state by year’s end.

“There’s a recognition that the program has reached that level that it has got to show results,” said Dempsey Benton, chief deputy secretary of the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, which runs the program.

Ronald E. Ferrell, the programs manager since April 1997, blamed the difficulties on complex real estate transactions, the inexperience of a young agency and his own determination to hold off on projects until he is sure they will work.

“We could have done a number of these projects quicker, and in some ways, we probably should have,” Ferrell said.  “I’m more interested in quality than quantity.”

Others are paying attention to quantity.  In May 2001, the General Accounting Office reported that the program hadn’t restored any wetlands as of September 2000.  While similar efforts in other states have yielded few results, only one, in Dade County, Fla., had received more money than the North Carolina program, the GAO found.  That county had restored 1,204 acres of wetlands, or 93 percent of what was required.

Aim: to undo damage  

No construction has begun on any of the Wetlands Restoration Program’s 10 proposed sites in Wake, Durham and Orange counties.  But the program’s presence has been visible in the Triangle for years – where it has allowed the paving of local creeks and swamps.

A little stream called Goose Creek has the misfortune of flowing near a spot in Durham where interstate 85 meets U.S. 70.  When DOT decided to expand the intersection with a massive overpass atop giant pilings, the road-building agency discovered that four acres of wetlands around Goose Creek were in the way.

In October 1999, DOT paid the Wetlands Restoration Program $204,000.  Then it sent dump trucks to recreate a new mountain of soil.  Goose Creek now flows into a concrete culvert so long that daylight on the other side looks like a pinhole.

Tommy Freeman watched it all happen from nearby Durham Rock Yard, where he works as a truck driver.  “They hauled all that dirt in,” he said.  “There ain’t no telling how many tons of dirt.  It was a marsh area back there,” he recalled.  “They filled it in.” 

Each check written to the program makes it the agency’s problem to figure out how to make up for damage like this.  Officially, it’s known as “in-lieu fee mitigation.”  Unofficially, it’s “pay and pave.”

Roger Sheats, DOT’s deputy secretary for environment, planning and local government affairs, said payments to the wetlands program have enabled $2.5 billion worth of road projects, most of them constructed over streams.  Without the Wetlands Restoration Program, Sheats said, “we can certify that those projects never would have been completed and most certainly would have been delayed.”  

Speeding up construction was one intention of the lawmakers when they created the program.  The other was reversing an environmental debacle. Eighteenth-century European farmers were the first to dig ditches in the soggy lands of Eastern North Carolina.  In the next 200 years, about half of the state’s wetlands were drained, and thousands of miles of streams were rerouted into straight channels, mostly to dry out the land for fields and pine plantations. 

By the mid-1990’s, however, fish kills, filthy rivers and devastating floods brought home to North Carolina what a mess it had made of the land.  Far from being a blight on the landscape, wetlands and natural streams provide a home for fish, frogs and ducks.  They absorb floodwaters and filter out pollution that washes off the land.

In response, General Assembly made wetlands and stream restoration the mission of a new agency within DENR.  Agreements with the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of protecting wetlands, and N.C. DOT gave the Wetlands Restoration Program the legal authority and revenue to accept payments from the developers and spend them on well-planned, large-scale projects.

Here’s how it was supposed to work:  The program’s environmental experts would study the state’s 17 river basins to find the best possible places to heal the landscape.  Then the staff would acquire tracts and hire private companies to study, design and build new stream channels, water-control structures and other means of returning the sites to a quasi-natural state.

The corps gave the wetlands program a generous schedule for starting projects, with the understanding that the watershed research would take time.  “Our planning end of things is the most important thing we do, in a lot of respects,” Ferrell said.

Those plans are supposed to lead to beneficial changes on the ground, and in some cases, they have.  Bright green grasses are springing out of small areas of coastal marsh resurrected at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort and Hammock’s Beach State Park in Onslow County.

Hominy Swamp now winds its way through a Wilson city park after a $499,000 reconstruction project dug a new channel last summer.  Logs fixed in the stream will hamper erosion and create pools for fish.  In the spring, sycamore, dogwood and willow trees planted along its banks will complete its transformation from a drainage ditch to a creek that filters out pollution and provides a better home for fish and amphibians.

“As a general rule, we’re very satisfied with what we’ve seen, and what we have on the way, said Wayne Wright, who was the regulatory chief of the corps’ Wilmington office before he retired this month.

Delays and missed deadlines  

Nevertheless, eight of 60 projects listed in the program’s 2001 annual report are finished.  Ferrell blamed delays on the complexities of acquiring land and rigid state rules governing real estate and construction.

“Our property acquisition process, which we have since corrected, has caused a lot of these projects to either be delayed or just to finally fall off,” he said.  The program now employs a full-time worker in the State Property Office, and it has sped up selection of landscape architects and engineers.

No construction has started on planned rescues of streams in two Raleigh city parks that drain into the polluted Neuse River, despite the agency’s prediction that they would be done by summer 2000.

A few stakes planted in the stream bank are the only sign of anything unusual at one of the sites, Kentwood Park.  Frisbee enthusiasts love this grove of pines off Kaplan Drive, because it has a golf course designed for flying discs.  But people tromping after lost Frisbees have turned two streams into eroded canyons.

The restoration program envisions a $540,000 reconstruction of the two arms of Bushy Branch that flow through Kentwood Park.  Though the program commissioned a study of the site in fall 1998, negotiations with the city of Raleigh over the use of the land have delayed construction for nearly two years, said Larry Hobbs, an implementation specialist with the program.

The program also wants to restore a tributary of Walnut Creek in Chavis Park in Southeast Raleigh.  Today the creek meanders among the thick brush, Styrofoam cups and an occasional discarded mattress.  Confusion over whether the Raleigh Housing Authority owned some of the land dragged that project out for 18 months, Ferrell said.  He expects construction in both parks to start this spring.

“It was just learning as you go, the amount of time things take,” he said.

The only wetlands restoration effort near the Triangle has dragged on even longer.

In 1998, the agency announced its first effort to restore a swamp that had been ditched out of existence.  On a remote flood plain along the Neuse River in eastern Johnston County, workers would plug up a stream on the grounds of Johnston Community College’s Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center.  The water table would rise and reclaim the former farm field, which would be planted with bald cypress and other water-loving trees.

Four years later, no wetlands have been restored at Howell Woods.  Problems emerged with a decision to enlarge the project from 28 acres to 139 acres, wrangling with the college’s trustees and competition from a private wetlands company.  Ferrell said trees were planted and some water-control structures built in spring 2000, but he now predicts construction in the spring.

Finishing work at Howell Woods is more urgent than ever.  The agency wants the corps to count the Howell Woods site as a replacement for the wetlands lost around Goose Creek in Durham and other Piedmont sites, even though those sites are up to 50 miles away.

A guiding philosophy of the program is restoring landscape close to where degradation occurs.  But the agency doesn’t have a wetlands restoration project closer to the Triangle that could meet deadlines set by the corps. 

“We had a requirement that we needed to meet,” Ferrell said.  “It doesn’t mean that we like it and we want to do that a lot.  We don’t.  We’re still in the process of trying to find something better suited to that particular impact.”

Problems kept under wraps  

The Wetlands Restoration Program chose not to share its problems with its legislative overseers.  Instead, its annual reports to the legislative Environmental Review Commission have featured projections of success that have proved impossible to fulfill. Ferrell said his presentations to the commission didn’t dwell on troubles either.

“I don’t spend a lot of time talking about problems,” he said.  “Do I want to go to the General Assembly and make a big case out of, ‘We didn’t know what we were doing?’  ‘There are all these little pieces that cropped up.’  I’ve never felt like that was in my best interest.  I use the 15 minutes they give me to accentuate the positives of the program.”

Ferrell said he has revised his annual reports to avoid the “optimistic” schedules of past reports.

“All the information I’ve put in those reports are put in those reports with the best intentions…Things happen.  Things don’t get done in advance or on the time schedules we have.  But they’re not put in there with the intention of deceiving somebody that we’ve done more than we have.  Overly optimistic, particularly in the earlier years, there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s and accurate description.”

By last summer, however, the rosy projections couldn’t keep the problems from emerging into public view.

Program under Review  

The May report from GAO, Congress’s investigative arm, raised questions about whether in-lieu fee programs such as the Wetlands Restoration Program were accomplishing anything.

When data collected from the corps showed the Wetlands Restoration Program had taken in $15 million without restoring any wetlands by the summer of 2000, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Republican from Greenville, took notice.  He already was pushing a bill to improve the prospects of private companies that offered the same service.  He called the agency’s lack of progress “inexcusable” and “an environmental tragedy.”

In July 2001, Ferrell, Benton and two DOT officials traveled to Washington to do damage control.  They met with staff members of at least eight House and Senate lawmakers from North Carolina to tout the program’s virtues.

The program faced a more tangible threat in Raleigh.  Lawmakers scrounging for money to balance the budget noticed the wetlands agency’s bank account.  They took $3.4 million, part of the $9.2 million given to the agency on its founding in 1997 to reverse decades of swamp draining.

“My goal was to hold onto that money until we had done some of the planning activities that we had, where we could do some really good projects that could really send the message on what this program was all about,” Ferrell said.  “In that respect, I made a bad decision.  It’s a situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  I could have spent it easily, then somebody could ask me, ‘What did you get for it?’” 

More money might be taken from the program in the near future.

“Seeing that amount of money in their bank accounts kind of raised my eyebrows,” Gibson said.  “Given that we cut programs and are probably going to cut even more…this kind of sticks out.”

He said he has drafted legislation that would create a pilot program to farm out wetlands mitigation to private companies.

But Ferrell and DOT officials are counseling patience.

“I’m confident that if we’re allowed to continue operating this program for another five years and hopefully a lot longer than that, then the value of what we’ve done will become apparent,” Ferrell said.  “Right now, it’s not.”

News researcher Susan Ebbs contributed to this report.  

Staff writer James Eli Shiffer can be reached at 836-5701 or jshiffer@newsobserver.com   

Private Companies Struggle to Compete with N.C Agency


A fledgling industry in North Carolina thinks its good business to restore swamps and creeks.  But the “wetland banking” companies complain that they can’t compete with the state’s own swamp builder, the N.C. Wetlands Restoration Program.

The main reason: The state agency doesn’t actually have to restore anything before it takes money from those who pay for destroying streams and wetlands.  By contrast, private entrepreneurs have to construct expensive engineering projects before they can make money from developers who want a piece of their swamp.  Then they can sell a specific number of acres each year if the government determines the environment has been improved.

George A. Howard is an entrepreneur who helped create the 618-acre Barra Farms wetland bank in Cumberland County four years ago.“To go in and compete with an entity that frankly doesn’t have to perform the work ahead of time is very difficult,” said Howard, now with a Raleigh-based company, Restoration Systems LLC.

That’s only one of the problems.   The wetlands program acknowledges that the $125-per-linear-foot it charges developers who damage streams isn’t enough to cover the cost of restoring them, so a profit-oriented wetlands bank can’t possibly match the price.

Wetlands Restoration Program representatives also sit on the Mitigation Banking Review Team, a board that has to approve any restoration projects by the programs private-sector competitors.

For that reason, many of the companies have given up trying to do business in parts of 11 watersheds.   Those are the areas in which the biggest buyer of wetlands and streams, the state Department of Transportation and the Wetlands Restoration Program, have signed an agreement that the bankers say gives the wetlands agency a virtual monopoly on DOT business. Ronald E. Ferrell, manager of the Wetlands Restoration Program, said that the arrangement is fair because government has more accountability than business.

“The reality is that the state of North Carolina and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources stand behind this program and are committed to making it work,” Ferrell said.“With the private sector, you don’t have that assurance. What’s going to keep the private banker from walking away from this project?”

Over the past several months, DOT has insisted that it wants to do business with private companies as well as the Wetlands Restoration Program.  On Jan. 9, the state Board of Transportation’s safety and emerging issues committee invited the N.C. Environmental Restoration Association, the trade group of wetlands bankers, to air its gripes.

The board asked DOT staff to investigate the concerns and issue a report within 90 days.  Roger Sheats, DOT’s deputy secretary for environment, planning and local government affairs, said his agency has made overtures to private mitigation bankers.  “No mitigation options are off the table with DOT.”

Staff writer James Eli Shiffer can be reached at 836-5701 orjshiffer@newsobserver.com