Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Pages Creek abundant with pollutants

County officials, local organizations collaborate to create watershed restoration plan

Pages Creek watershed contains elevated levels of pollutants and local organizations are collaborating on a watershed restoration plan to mitigate the effects. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Elevated levels of pollutants in Pages Creek watershed are leading to contaminated water, increased flooding and economic hardship for local shellfish industries, according to recent water quality reports

In violation of the U.S. Environmental Policy Agency’s Clean Water Act, Pages Creek contains high levels of fecal coliform and nearby development has exponentially increased runoff, further polluting local water quality. New Hanover County and local organizations are working to mitigate these effects by establishing a plan for the 5,025-acre area.

The Cape Fear Resource Conservation and Development (CFRCD), New Hanover County Soil and Water Conservation District (NHCSWCD) and Moffatt & Nichol (a Raleigh-based civil engineering firm) signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Monday with New Hanover County Board of Commissioners to implement a watershed restoration program.

The intent is to obtain approval by N.C. Division of Water Resources, to allow the county to qualify for Federal EPA319 grant-funding opportunities. County SWCD director Dru Harrison explained at the meeting the plan will detail what can be done to improve water quality, and the EPA grant funding would help implement that strategy.

The state Land and Water Fund awarded the project $75,000 to begin the planning process, which Moffatt and Nichol senior coastal planner Dawn York said should be complete by spring 2023.

The memorandum also ensures all stakeholders involved in the planning process and the community are on the same page. Cape Fear RCD executive director Danielle Darkangelo explained that keeping the community abreast of the plan, sources and use of funding and roles of those involved is vital to the project’s success.

While eight organizations are involved in the planning, the workload will fall on the county’s soil and water district, CFRCD and Moffatt & Nichol,  the technical lead on development of the plan.

Out of New Hanover County’s 12 watersheds, Pages Creek is considered to have the most severe problems and contains 17.8% impervious surface coverage. Located between Middle Sound Loop Road and Bay Shore, Pages ultimately flows into the Intracoastal Waterway, with its contaminants then draining into the ocean.

Based on scientific data from water-monitoring reports, Pages Creek has been designated as a target watershed in the soil and water district’s strategic plan, along with Hewlett’s Creek. The area is densely populated, with roughly 8,000 residents in its coverage area; it also contends with frequent flooding.

“Water quality and water quantity have become such big issues, and have gotten a lot of rhetoric, but there haven’t been a great deal of active projects to address or find out what’s going on,” Darkangelo said.

The high levels of fecal coliform in the area are from human waste, but its destination point is still unclear, Harrison said. With 27,000 registered dogs in the county, there is also 12.5 tons of pet waste produced a day that run into local waterways. 

Fecal bacteria is not the only pollutant creating issues. Statewide, sediment particles are abundant and when that gets stirred up in water beds, other pollutants cling to those particles.

“Imagine this: Say you’re a fish that lives in this water,” Harrison said. “When you have multiple pollutants in the water, it starts impacting wildlife greatly. Fish can’t breathe. It’s like us breathing in smog. So, they’ll either leave or no longer reproduce.”

The impact on shellfish in waterways is also extensive and growing statewide. Farmers can lease areas in North Carolina’s watersheds to grow and harvest shellfish commercially. When pollutants are elevated, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries puts a temporary stop on harvesting or issues a closure of that location.

“The state is trying to encourage people to do more shellfish harvesting, specifically oyster farming, so we have a greater industry to contribute to more of our regional food source,” Darkangelo said. “It’s a very sustainable, economical and economic development supporting industry. So, for them to be shut down is quite an issue; it could impact the livelihood of growers and the surrounding community.”

As such, oyster farming has been shut down in many areas, including Pages Creek. Oysters are filter-feeders, so when a person consumes an oyster harvested from a polluted watershed, he or she could get very sick from the pollutants seeping into the shellfish.

“[Nearly] every tidal creek in New Hanover County has a spot on it that’s closed to shellfish harvesting,” Harrison said.

The watershed restoration plan will dictate specific action to reduce the effects of polluted waters. Similar to Bradley and Hewletts creeks’ watershed restoration plans, sponsored by the City of Wilmington and N.C. Coastal Federation, the Pages Creek plan will put in place  “gray and green infrastructure” to help infiltrate more stormwater in the area to reduce flooding.

Gray infrastructure refers to manmade, traditional fixtures — such as seawalls, roads, pipes and water treatment plants — to slow the flow of water. Green infrastructure restores or mimics the natural water cycle and provides a way for water to absorb into the ground. Many factors, including space, soil type, money, all dictate the needed course of action. A combined approach is usually chosen to implement the most effective solution, Harrison explained.

Examples of projects done in other local watersheds range from backyard rain gardens  to extensive projects, such as converting UNCW’s parking lots to pervious surfaces.

“The goal is to reduce the hydrograph,” Harrison said, “the measurement each year of how much water soaked into the ground and how much flowed into the creek.”

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