Device aids study of Little River fish
By Suzette Rodriguez
KENLY — Joshua Raabe might not have snagged the biggest fish out of the Little River. But he could claim bragging rights for building the granddaddy of all fish traps.
A bass headed up or down stream would have to pole vault to clear it. But it’s flexible enough for canoes and boats to drift downstream over it.
The contraption, as locals call it, is a resistance-board weir, designed to safely capture fish coming and going in the waters where the 10-foot-thick concrete dam of Lowell Mill once stood.
Restoration Systems, a Raleigh company that specializes in environmental restoration, bought the dam, then blasted and cleared it away in December 2005 and January of 2006. It plans to give the 17-acre site and a $140,000 endowment to the county for use as a park.
The purpose behind removing the dam was to open up spawning areas to striped bass, herring and shad — species of saltwater fish that spawn in fresh water. With the removal of the dam, the fish can now migrate from the Atlantic Ocean up the Little River all the way to Atkinson Mill.
Raabe, 25, a graduate student, built and installed the weir as part of a study by the N.C. Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at N.C. State University. U.S. Fish & Wildlife is funding the study, while Restoration Systems put up the $15,000 to buy the materials.
For his design, Raabe borrowed from a blueprint of a weir used to catch salmon in Alaska. He spent about five weeks drilling, cutting and connecting sections of PVC pipe to make the two cages and floating panels. Pieces of plywood attached to the panels give them lift as the river rises and falls.
On either end, metal pickets block the fish and steer them toward the cages.
Raabe will leave the weir up through May. He’ll take it down, then reinstall it for the March-to-May period of 2008.
Every morning, he wades out to the cages to see what he’s caught.
On Friday, he scooped out of the trap a gizzard shad, a fish more suitable for bait than eating. But in earlier weeks, he had caught an American shad as well as a few suckers, or bottom-feeding fish.
On one particular morning, Raabe got a startle when a curious beaver swam up to his feet as he was working at the weir.
Locals have also dropped by to see what’s going on. On weekends, two or three people come to cast their lines, Raabe said. “But most come, look and leave,” he said.
“All remember the dam,” he added. “And they ask if the shad are running. There’s definitely an interest.”
Dr. Joseph Hightower, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey stationed at N.C. State, says he’s disappointed that more American shad aren’t at the Lowell Mill site. He thinks the river’s low flow brought on by the drought is to blame.
Hightower said the fish adjust their migration to river conditions. At the weir, the river is two feet at its deepest point, he said.
“We have no idea how many there are, so we don’t know what to expect,” Hightower said Friday. “We assumed we’d have more.”
Back in the 1800s, the American shad were considered fine eating, he said. Nowadays, they’re becoming popular for sport fishing. He’d like to see the population in the Little River build up as much as the hickory shad in the Roanoke River.
At one time, North Carolina produced more American shad than any other state. But catches plummeted from more than eight million pounds in 1896 to 205,000 pounds in 1995, according to information in a brochure about the project.
Hightower says the shad can rebound quickly, however, with quality habitat. A mature fish can lay as many as 600,000 eggs.
As part of the study, Raabe and an assistant, Dana Sackett of Fayetteville, are sampling the river farther upstream and downstream for the tiny fish eggs that ride with the currents.
Raabe records the length and tags the American shad and suckers before turning them loose. To keep track of the gizzard shads, he notches their tails.
But the one he scooped up Friday wiggled its way free while being measured. If not for Sackett’s quick hands, the fish might have gotten away.
Herald Staff Reporter Suzette Rodriguez can be reached at 934-2176, Ext. 128, or by e-mail at [email protected]
Somerset farm conversion is watershed condition of Wicomico airport project
By Liz Holland
PRINCESS ANNE — Mount Vernon residents will soon see a 50-acre farm converted into a natural area along the Wicomico River as part of wetlands replacement for a construction project miles away at the Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico County Regional Airport.
In the next few weeks, workers will begin grading the land and planting native trees on the Bobtown Road property to turn it into a combination of marsh near the river and forested nontidal wetlands closer to the road.
"Technically, we’re not creating wetlands, said Joe Carroll of Restoration Systems LLC, consultant for the project. "We’re restoring what it once was."
Although the land has been used for farming for many years, Carroll said it was once a "fully-functioning ecosystem" that had man-made "improvements" over the years, including leveling of the earth and the addition of drainage ditches for the fields. Carroll said part of his job was to figure out what the land once looked like, and to help restore it.
While a small portion will be turned into a marshy area near the river, most of the property will be a forested area that will only flood during certain times of the year. Native trees and shrubs are already on order from a nursery and should be ready to go in the ground over the next few weeks.
Other species, such as pine, will seed themselves naturally on the property.
"Nature takes care of a lot of it, but we want to give some species a head start," he said.
The project also will include the elimination of phragmites — an invasive reed — along the riverbank. Workers will also fill in the drainage ditches.
Carroll said it’s unlikely the new wetland area will encroach on adjoining properties because there is a 5-foot fall from the road where neighboring houses are located down to the river, so water will drain away from the houses. The work in Somerset County is necessary because airport runway projects are disturbing 40 acres of wetlands along a small creek that feeds into the Wicomico River, and federal environmental regulations require Wicomico County to create new wetlands somewhere else in the same watershed.
Last year, Wicomico officials identified more than 160 possible sites along the Wicomico River in Wicomico County, but they turned out to be either unsuitable or the property owners refused to sell, Carroll said. The Mount Vernon site met all the Maryland Department of the Environment criteria — including 50 contiguous acres of hydric soil — and the owner was willing to sell.
Although Somerset County officials questioned why it was necessary for Wicomico County to bring its wetlands mitigation over the county line, residents in Mount Vernon don’t seem to mind it too much, said County Commissioner Rex Simpkins, who represents that district.
"I’ve only heard one or two negative remarks," he said. Carroll said.
The property — which will eventually serve as part of the important filtration system for the Wicomico Watershed — will be an attractive, natural area when it’s completed. The project also has pleased state and federal environmental officials because poorer quality wetlands near the airport are being replaced.
"The restored area will be better than what is being taken away," he said.
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."
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
"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.
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.
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 [email protected]
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, no to be mistaken for trust deed & pensions. Bonds 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 [email protected]
By James G. Workman
State says effort is an example of meeting needs of environment, food production and the military
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
(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.
George 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.
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 [email protected]
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
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.”