Wednesday, February 8, 2023

From Snow’s Cut dredging to fishermen with dynamite, Canal Drive flooding is a man-made problem

Flooding along Canal Drive in Carolina Beach on Saturday. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Flooding along Canal Drive in Carolina Beach. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

CAROLINA BEACH — It’s one of the Town of Carolina Beach’s biggest problems — flooding on Canal Drive. It’s certainly not a new problem, but it is one that has been exacerbated over the past few decades as more and more development moves in.

“The flooding on Canal Drive and the north end, in general, is a generational problem. Anyone that has been coming here longer than 20 years knows that to be a fact,” Mayor Joe Benson said.

Sunny day flooding can even occur on the road when things like extreme high tides take place. The town has taken several steps to try and alleviate the problem. Efforts have proven to be temporary and perhaps Quixotic — but that hasn’t stopped them from trying.

On Tuesday, Benson, along with town staff and state legislators, offered residents a look into some of the new ideas for addressing the old problem.

Why were state lawmakers attending a workshop about a seemingly isolated problem affecting a very small number of residents? It comes down to the town’s need for enabling legislation at the state level to allow the town the autonomy to solve the problems.

“Ultimately, along the way with mitigating or even solving the problem of nuisance flooding is enabling legislation that will allow the town and other municipalities to do it,” Benson said.

The committee

In an effort to find solutions to the problem the town created an ad hoc committee — the aptly named Canal Drive Flooding Committee. One of their first accomplishments was the town ordinance that allowed police to issue citations to people driving through standing water on the roads creating wakes and causing property damage.

But road closures and issuing citations are not long-term solutions, especially since the number of sunny day flooding events are on the rise along with sea levels.

“North Carolina tidal gauges have recorded a clear rising trend in mean sea level since data collection was begun. The data indicates that sea-level rise due to tidal rising will be along the order of 8 inches in the next 30 years (2040). Similarly, the sea level rise due to tidal rise over the past 70 years has been approximately 12 inches,” the committee reported back in 2018.

A man-made problem?

Carolina Beach wasn’t always on an island and a series of man-made events has led the town to where it is today (Port City Daily/Courtesy Carolina Beach)

In order to understand the flooding problems, it’s important to know the history of the town’s creation.

Carolina Beach is a town located on Pleasure Island — but it wasn’t always an island.

“We weren’t an island until Congress authorized the extension of the Intracoastal Waterway in 1930, it created Snow’s Cut that linked the sound to the river,” Planning Director Jeremey Hardison said.

That extension of the waterway led the town to come up with the idea to dredge out what is now Myrtle Grove Sound. But as with any dredging project, finding a new location for the dredged materials is always a question.

The answer to that question? To dump the materials on the west side of the Carolina Beach Yacht Basin, which was previously a muddy mash-like area, Hardison said. This effectively created the land that is now home to Canal Drive and hundreds of residents.

With the creation of the new island and the extension of Snow’s Cut, the fishing community was thriving — but there was a problem — boaters had to either go to Southport or Wrightsville Beach to reach open waters.

So in 1952, the fishing community in Carolina Beach took it upon themselves to find a solution, a rather explosive idea.

“In 1952 fishermen got together, hired a dynamite company and blew open the Carolina Beach Inlet, this created direct access to the ocean,” Hardison said.

Carving out Snow’s Cut, blasting open the inlet, and using the spoils to build out part of the newly formed island — all of these events led to the current flooding situation in Carolina Beach today.

In 1965 town leaders prohibited building on the west side of Canal Drive until they could establish if it was even suitable for development. But eventually, the restrictions were lifted and development took off. Now, after decades of development and the manipulation of nature, the town is hoping to find new solutions to the problems the previous generations created.

Possible solutions?

Bulkheads create a sharp vertical transition from land to sea. Instead of wave energy transferring onto a sloping plane, it is forced to disperse against the wall and can cause damage to existing wetlands. (Port City Daily/Johanna Ferebee)
Bulkheads can help prevent tidal flooding in Carolina Beach, but in order for them to be effective, they need to be uniform to create a sea wall of sorts (Port City Daily/Johanna Ferebee)

Robert Gordon, one of the Canal Drive Flooding Committee members, offered residents a look at some of the solutions and possible hurdles.

Often, the suggestion is to simply install larger drain pipes or repave the road is offered, but for Canal Drive, it’s not that simple, Gordon said. But after two years of work, the committee has come up with ideas to solve the problem.

“The most important element in the solution to flooding along Canal Drive is tidal containment. When a high-tide is higher than adjacent lots and roads, what do you do? You have to find a way to keep the water out, you can’t fill the north end,” he said.

Tidal containment is just that, creating barriers to help keep water out, an expensive process that would require building on private and public property. The most common form of this is a bulkhead, but living shorelines and other walls or barriers are often used as well.

Essentially, what the committee is suggesting is the creation of a seawall — but in order to have a functioning seawall, standards must be met.

“You can’t have part of a seawall if any part of it is missing or is too low or it isn’t built right and fails, then the whole system fails,” Gordon said.

Because of this, an ordinance is needed to help guide the development of bulkheads in Carolina Beach — but there’s a problem — state legislation would be needed to actually enact such an ordinance.

Drains, valves, and maintenance

Tidal containment is the most important solution, but it is not the only solution. The town has already taken steps to help relieve flooding issues in the form of vales and drains.

The town has installed new check valves along Canal Drive and the north end that prevent water from returning to the surface (backflow). The drains and valves the town was previously using, known as duckbill prevention devices, were problematic since things like oysters and barnacles could obstruct them.

Over the past two years, the town has replaced the old valves with newer, less problem-prone systems. This has cost taxpayers an estimated $80,000, according to Bill Skinner, another member of the committee.

There are other things the town does to help with flooding including the use of its street sweeper.

“The street sweeper is one of the town’s most important stormwater best management practices, as it keeps the sand and debris from entering and blocking stormwater pipes,” according to Skinner’s presentation.

The use of a new vacuum truck is also one of the key parts in keeping stormwater pipes clear and clean. The truck was approved for this fiscal year and reached the island last week, Skinner said.

Legislation needed

Carolina Beach is not alone when it comes to mitigating rising tides and other coastal towns are also working on getting more autonomy to address the issues. But Carolina Beach is the first to bring a complete legislative package to lawmakers in Raleigh.

So what would it take to make these ideas a reality? Well, there are three powers the state currently holds that would need to be delegated to the town.

  1. The capacity to direct the physical elevation of containment structures
  2. Time certain completion of related infrastructure
  3. A workable financial platform allowing for the completion of the needed infrastructure

These items are currently regulated through the state and on a project-to-project basis, but if approved, the town would require specific elevations for bulkheads and specific time tables for completion.

The town has been working with State Senator Harper Peterson as well as local representatives, and ultimately, it will come down to the state lawmakers ceding power to towns like Carolina Beach.

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