This is the fourth in a multipart special reporting series on coastal water quality. Read more.
An amendment to North Carolina’s Coastal Habitat Protection Plan is now approved for public review, and thrust into the forefront of proposed modifications to the long-standing document are ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change and unregulated sources of stormwater runoff to those habitats.
“This year we’re doing something a little differently in that we’re doing an amendment rather than a revision to the source document,” said Jimmy Johnson, coastal habitats coordinator with the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership. “We were comfortable with the source document as it was written in 2016. We wanted to specifically focus on some other issues that we felt needed to be made a priority and so we decided to do an amendment rather than revising the source document.”
The Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, often referred to as CHPP and pronounced “chip,” was born out of the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act, a comprehensive management plan for fish and shell species. The goal of the plan is to protect, restore and conserve coastal habitats that sustain coastal fisheries.
The Coastal Resources Commission voted Wednesday to approve public review of the amendment and a related appendix with input received during an early public comment period facilitated by the North Carolina Coastal Federation and The Pew Charitable Trusts with the Coastal Habitat Steering Committee’s approval.
Pew Charitable Trusts Officer Leda Cunningham said Pew encourages the public to support the plan during the comment period and learn how they can contribute to conservation efforts.
“North Carolina is a special place in terms of coastal habitat and the CHPP is a really solid plan that prioritizes collaboration for protecting and restoring that habitat,” she said. “It’s going to take many of us pulling together to achieve common goals of sustainability and resiliency.”
The CHPP officially began in 2005, shortly after it was first adopted in late 2004 by the state’s three regulatory commissions with oversight on coastal issues: Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources Commission and Marine Fisheries Commission.
The Marine Fisheries and Environmental Management commissions approved the amendment for public review during their respective meetings earlier this summer.
The plan is reviewed every five years by environmental officials within the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, the divisions of which must work together to implement the recommendations set forth in the CHPP. It identifies six coastal habitat types: wetlands, submerged aquatic vegetation, marshes, soft bottom, shell bottom and water column, which is the space between the water’s surface and the bottom.
Casey Knight, a coastal habitats biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, explained how, this time around, officials are focusing on specific issues, identifying concerns related to those issues, researching ways to mitigate the impacts of those issues on coastal habitats, and using that research to implement rules and regulations to reduce those impacts.
The priority issues include the following:
- Submerged aquatic vegetation, protection and restoration through water quality improvements.
- Wetland protection and restoration through nature-based solutions. This one tackles the development of living shorelines over hardened structures and, as Johnson puts it, letting “nature be nature” by leaving natural wetlands undisturbed.
- Environmental rule compliance to protect coastal habitats. This issue addresses the need for additional field representatives to routinely conduct compliance checks and issue notices of violations. “We just don’t have enough of those positions to do the work and so that is just trying to get the existing rules we have on the books enforced better and complies with better,” Knight said.
- Wastewater infrastructure solutions for water quality improvement. Wastewater and stormwater underground collection systems are old and in need of repair throughout the state. But, the situation in the coastal region is exacerbated by the threat of sea level rise. “It’s fairly frequent that we read about spills and pipes rupturing and spilling wastewater into the estuaries and streams and creeks,” Johnson said. “It’s an expensive proposition and the problem in eastern North Carolina is so many of these smaller communities just don’t have the money to be able to retrofit or to repair their infrastructure and so we’re calling attention to that.”
- Coastal habitat mapping and monitoring to assess status and trends. Mapping and monitoring the work currently being done to protect coastal habitats will help officials make more educated decisions on how to carry forth protection and restoration efforts. “Without the proper amount of monitoring and assessing of things that are already being done on the ground now we need to be able to know in which direction to move in the future and the only way to do that is map and monitor the work that’s being done now,” Johnson said.
Issue papers have been created to address each of these priorities. And, though they’re specific issues, they’re all tied in two common denominators – water quality and climate change.
“One thing we did see with the source document is that it did not really cover climate change in the aspects of coastal resiliency in the manner that we speak of it today,” Knight said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 80, a commitment to tackle climate change and build the state’s green energy economy, in October 2018, two years after the CHPP’s was last updated.
The order led to DEQ’s creation of the North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, a climate adaptation plan released in June 2020. Through the development of that plan, the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies, a research institute of the University of North Carolina system, created the North Carolina Climate Science Report.
“We’ve taken a lot of that information, specifically coastal information, and created another chapter that will be part of this amendment called climate change and resiliency and that speaks to a lot of compounding issues that go along with sea level rise,” Knight said.
More frequent, heavier rain events associated with climate change and rising sea levels are exacerbating issues relating to water quality issues, with wide-ranging impacts across all coastal habitats.
During heavy rain events, rainwater gets sucked into underground wastewater pipes, overflowing systems. Heavy, frequent rainfall creates more unregulated stormwater runoff, which makes its way into coastal habitats. This runoff equates to higher levels of nitrogen in those habitats.
“We’ve done a decent job of dealing with point source pollution, but now we’ve realized that some of those gains are being outweighed by all of this nonpoint,” Knight said. “By creating and looking further into water quality standards for some of these nutrient indicators we will be able to definitively say the water quality standard here is not being met and what actions can we start taking to make sure that those standards are met.”
An overabundance of nitrogen in water causes eutrophication, a process where rapid algae growth depletes oxygen levels in the water.
Algae growth blocks the light submerged aquatic vegetation needs to survive and grow. SAV provides food and shelter for coastal fish.
“We also acknowledge that water quality improvements for SAV are going to be beneficial to most other habitats and the animals that use them,” Knight said. “Through that issue paper we are hopefully looking at developing additional water quality standards around some of these nutrient indicators or factors that could be actionable and see hopefully a difference within the next period of the CHPP review in the next five years.”
The wetlands issue paper includes ongoing research on how to help marshes keep up with the pace of sea level rise.
“If we can’t keep the marshes keeping up with sea level rise then we’ll lose the marshes altogether and that’s the last thing we need,” she said. “So, we need to plan for the migration of those marshes inland. We need to protect the areas that these marshes are potentially going to migrate to as sea level rises.”
One way to do this is potentially through a method called thin layer deposition.
Thin layer deposition takes material dredged from coastal waterways that is not suitable to be placed on an ocean shoreline and sprayed, in a thin layer, onto a marsh, giving the marsh “a little more meat at their roots,” Knight explained.
“As the tide comes in and washes over it should be bringing more sediment to them so they need that sediment to survive, which is a double-edged sword when we talk about sediment in other ways as far as water quality concerns,” she said. “We don’t like the ideas of sediment, but we’re talking about that nearshore kind of over wash during that tide change that they need just to kind of push that extra layer of sediment onto their bank just to make sure that they continue to rise as the sea level comes up and that tide pushes in farther. There’s a lot of permitting issues involved in that too that we’re going to hopefully work through. We need to be able to have the research that proves that it’s viable and feasible and then we can start moving toward some of the permitting barriers that we have there.”
Research is ongoing as to how much is the right amount to spray onto marshes.
The benefits of living shorelines and their adaptation to sea level rise as compared to hardened shoreline structures are continuing to be researched as well.
The discussion is now turning from whether they are a better shoreline protection alternative to bulkheads to how the state can incentivize property owners and companies to choose living shorelines over bulkheads.
“Leaving those big wetland buffers and creating things like living shorelines instead of bulkheads that have lawns right up to the edges of the waterway, that’s going to be key in helping kind of buffer those floodwaters both coming from hurricanes when they’re pushing water in, or these heavy rain events when they do occur,” Knight said.
The state is expected to take public comments on the proposed amendments in October.
Coastal Resources Commissioner Larry Baldwin noted on Wednesday the months of work and stakeholder efforts to address particular water quality concerns that produced the amendment.
“I think we got it about as good as we can. I like it because it’s not heavy regulatory. It’s trying to coordinate many different groups and funding to be able to improve water quality, which I think is a good thing, Baldwin said.
Johnson said the hope is that an updated CHPP will be adopted by the end of this year or early 2022.
“We have tried to incorporate all of those main issues into what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’ve pulled in a lot of information from other plans and the document that we have, it’s a pretty remarkable amendment that we have come up with. We just need to realize that we need to keep on the land the things that were intended to be on the land and not let them get into the water. That’s the best that we can possibly do and if it’s buffers or wetlands or whatever to make that happen then we need to do all we can to enforce that.”