“I saw something in his eyes that longed for the river to be healthy and be important to people again.”
That’s how Greg Jacobs describes part of a conversation he had with a Coharie Tribe member several years ago regarding The Big Coharie River in Sampson County. Jacobs is the tribal administrator for the tribe. He said that conversation was one of the things that sparked a revitalization of the river with funding made available through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. That revitalization is a prime example of the stream debris removal program that the department has helped administer in dozens of areas after Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence.
Phillip Bell – a man of Coharie and Lumbee lineage – was the man who spoke to Jacobs about the river. Jacobs had also heard from other tribe members. One Coharie elder woman had mentioned that not many people used the river like they used to. Another Coharie elder woman mentioned how the river had once been an area of safety and security for the tribe – a place they could socialize during segregation.
The Coharie River had always been a place of safety and security for Coharie tribe members since they settled in the area in the early 1700’s. They moved there to get away from conflict with European settlers around New Bern. Jacobs said in more recent years, the river was the site of everything from school trips and picnics, to baptisms.
However, he said the river had begun to resemble more of a swamp than a river. There was flooding over the banks, lots of debris and beaver dams and no navigable route down the river. The ever-increasing flooding included nearby farmland. He and others worried that their grandchildren wouldn’t have the same quality of life as those who grew up with the river in a healthy state. The river that had been such a life force to the tribe felt lifeless and left behind.
So Jacobs and Bell organized a volunteer effort to clean out the river of the debris that was backing up water and keeping it from flowing smoothly within the river’s banks. They called it the Coharie River Initiative.
“Being the spiritual people we are, I said if we do what we can, God – creator – will send us what we need,” Jacobs said. “We started cleaning out the river one tree at a time.”
Meanwhile, they also contacted the Sampson County Soil and Water Conservation District about any possible assistance.
“We were kind of stumped on if there was anything we could do to help,” said Henry Faison with the district. “Then after Hurricane Matthew, the Department of Agriculture opened up the stream debris removal program, and the Coharie were the first ones we contacted.”
The stream debris removal program was part of the overall disaster relief bill that the N.C. General Assembly approved after Matthew, which hit the Carolinas in October of 2016. The program set out to help local “sponsors” such as counties, cities or soil & water conservation districts to remove debris that was slowing down the flow of water in waterways and contributing to flooding.
Once funding was approved, the Division of Soil and Water Conservation within the N.C. Department of Agriculture moved quickly to set up a process to get funds to local debris removal projects. Staff set up a request process and a way to make decisions about which requests would be awarded money for projects.
David Williams, the deputy director of the Soil and Water Conservation Division, recalls lawmakers approved the disaster relief bill by December or January, and by February of 2017, the first contracts for debris removal projects were awarded.
“The division was very eager to help people,” Williams said. “I think we’ve done a lot of good with the funds that have been made available.”
The Coharie River project is just one of dozens of stream debris removal projects across the state in the aftermath of Matthew and Florence (which hit in October of 2018). It’s sort of a revival of a flood prevention effort. Stream debris removal had proven to be beneficial in the past – after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, for example – but a revised interpretation of USDA policy meant federal assistance for more recent work was limited. So state funding from the North Carolina General Assembly has been critical.
The Coharie Tribe received $727,219 for debris removal after Matthew and $359,219 after Florence. That was all money from the state for disaster relief. In the aftermath of Florence, federal USDA funding has been more available for stream repair projects (including stream debris removal), and other local sponsors have taken advantage of that federal aid. Still, continued funding from the state has been vital to help those local sponsors come up with the non-federal match for the USDA funds.
“The Legislature has been great, and I can’t help but believe it’s because of the great relationship Commissioner Troxler has formed with lawmakers,” Williams said.
Jacobs said when the tribe began their effort on their own they thought they may clean out a mile of The Big Coharie River above a favorite fishing hole, but when the current project is finished, he expects to be close to 90 miles of waterway cleared in the county. That includes other waterways such as Little Coharie Creek, Six Runs Creek and Black River. It’s been a combined effort with another local sponsor, the Friends of Sampson County Waterways.
He said thousands of people are now using the river again.
“Getting assistance from the Department of Agriculture made all the difference in the world,” Jacobs said. “We were taking out just one tree a day because they were so huge, and we only had hand-operated equipment, plus we were working with volunteers. The NCDA assistance meant consistent manpower and significant equipment.”
Jacobs said it felt like the impossible was made possible. The Coharie aren’t the only people benefitting from the project either. Getting the water flowing has meant decreased flooding on nearby farmland and roads, Faison said. Plus, it’s increased how much the community can use the river for recreation.
“There are a lot of local contractors put to work through this too,” Williams said. “There may be some from out of state, but most I’m aware of have been in-state contractors.”
For Jacobs, the biggest benefit has been seeing people return to the river that has bred life into the tribe for generations. An asset that was in danger of being forgotten and overlooked is now back to a healthy state. The contractors will be finished with the project soon, but Jacobs said there’s a renewed interest from young tribe members who want to keep the river in better shape.
“Speaking as a tribe, it’s helped us bond with our local government, and I think it’s made us a valuable part of our local community. We feel more part of our local government, especially when it comes to conservation,” Jacobs said. “Thank you to the NCDA for coming to our rescue and giving us the opportunity to serve the community of Sampson County.”