Super-Sized Restoration Projects Begin in Hyde County
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
ENGELHARD--With numerous bureaucratic hurdles finally cleared,
an innovative wetlands restoration project led by the N.C. Coastal Federation
is about to begin on thousands of acres of Hyde County farmland.
“The actual physical work is getting ready to start,” said Mac
Gibbs, a federation board member and recently retired Hyde County North
Carolina Cooperative Extension Director. “It’s probably been five years since
we started this project.”
A collaboration between farmers, the federation, N.C. State University, USDA
Natural Resource Conservation Service and several other state and federal
nonprofits and agencies, the two complementary projects are designed to store
and filter millions of gallons of stormwater runoff from farmland north of
In the process, 2,750 acres of wetlands will be
restored, and millions of gallons of farm drainage into tributaries of the
Albemarle and Pamlico sounds will be substantially reduced.
Canals such as this one convey millions of gallons of farm runoff from fields and into coastal waterways. This project offers a solution to this problem.
“We’re excited about the strong partnership that has
developed and the opportunities to dovetail the goals of the landowner’s
management needs with water quality and habitat restoration,” Erin Fleckenstein,
the federation’s project administrator, explained.
The land is located within the 42,500-acre
Mattamuskeet Drainage Association that manages storm water through canals to
the Pamlico Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway. The federation is working with local
landowners, including Hyde County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to
restore the natural hydrology of the land, resulting in improved estuarine
water quality for finfish and shellfish.
An aerial view of the Mattamuskeet Drainage Association, where the work is taking place. Map: Claude Long
The drainage district is surrounded by
environmentally sensitive areas: Alligator
River National Wildlife Refuge, Mattamuskeet
National Wildlife Refuge, Gull Rock Game Lands, and the Long Shoal and
“The landscape is so flat,” said Fleckenstein. “The
lands within the drainage association are managed by a series of pumps and
canals that were dug from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. This has altered the historic
hydrology of the area and has moved more water to the east than originally
Major canals are spaced every mile, with smaller canals
“This is typical of much of eastern North Carolina. It’s
a very modified and engineered system,” she said.
When the restoration is complete, these pumps will only be used during hurricanes or other severe weather events. Photo: Christine Miller
Gibbs had acted as an intermediary between Hyde
farmer Wilson Daughtry, owner of Alligator River Growers, and the federation
after Daughtry had expressed interest in management of the runoff from his
land. In 2003, Gibbs helped bring together stakeholders to discuss the details
of how the land, the farmers, the wetlands, the fish and the waterways could
share the benefits if the field drainage was managed properly.
“When they left that meeting,” he said, “they were
In a complex plan designed by assistant professor
Mike Burchell and a team of engineers at N.C. State’s Department of Biological
and Agricultural Engineering, the canals that intersect the farmland will be
retrofitted with a number of pumps and weirs to control stormwater flow during
heavy rains, redirecting the water into a created wetland rather than pumping
it off the farmland into the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.
The work on the projects will include
construction of ten swales and two sloughs that foster water flow through the wetlands,
allowing the natural nutrient removal process. The project will also core over
14,000 feet of dikes around the perimeter of the project, which will ensure
that the restored wetlands retain the redirected water. Drainage water will be
held in three shallow receiving areas adjacent to the farmland, and overflow
will slowly seep into historic paths north toward Alligator River refuge.
As a result, millions of gallons of polluted
drainage from farm fields will be kept from going into the waterways and
harming fish. The water will instead be
filtered through the soil and harmlessly used by vegetation. In the process,
wildlife gain habitat and farmers gain better water management and protection
from crop damage caused by salt-water intrusion.
"The perimeter pumps will only be activated during
heavy rainfall," Gibbs explained. “Those surges are what hurt water quality.”
Typically, the area gets 50- to 55-inches of
rainfall a year, he said, but 35 of those inches get taken up by plants or
evaporate- leaving just 16 inches a year to be pumped.
“You can go a month,” he said, “and the pumps would
never come on.”
The two projects moving to construction have
received nearly $2.6 million in funding with $1.3 M in grants coming from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, $1 M
from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetland Reserve Program, and a $74,989
grant from the Albemarle-Pamlico
National Estuary Partnership (APNEP), which awards project money provided
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The remainder was funded by
matching state grants and in-kind resources.
like these can restore vast swaths of hydrology along the coast, helping to
prevent or slow the runoff of nutrients and other pollutants into the sounds,”
Jim Hawhee, APNEP policy and engagement manager, said in an e-mail. “This
project has the added benefit of supporting the area’s farmers by improving
their capacity to manage water on and around their fields.”
After the project is completed in the coming year, the association’s pump use will be logged. The University will also model the
pollutant removal rates as part of their work on a larger EPA watershed
Much knowledge gained from an earlier federation
restoration project at North River Farms in Carteret County will be applied to the Hyde project, Fleckenstein said. Many of the same groups were involved, and we found that the Carteret site benefited most over time by restoration of
the natural hydrology.
“We learned a lot of lessons of how to restore
wetlands on a large scale,” she said.
About 15 years ago, when the federation began
studying ways to restore oyster populations, it soon became apparent that the best
way to restore the water quality in the sounds was to address the landscape
modifications and runoff carrying polluted water into the estuaries.
“These canals, even in light rainfalls,”
Fleckenstein said, “can transport bacteria, sediments and nutrients into our
The Mattamuskeet district was promising for
restoration because of its large tracts of land and the willingness of the
landowners to work with the federation.
Gibbs said that Daughtry and other farmers saw the
writing on the wall and realized that it was to their benefit to be proactive,
rather than having some agency dictate how to manage their land.
“This is a very environmentally sensitive area,” he
said. “It’s easier to help set the standard rather than being told what the