NCDA&CS aid helps Jacksonville improve water quality after Hurricane damage

by | Jun 17, 2021

This summer, Jacksonville city leaders hope to wrap up work on a major hurricane recovery project that was made possible with financial assistance from NCDA&CS. The project covers twelve sites throughout Jacksonville where Hurricane Florence left damage and debris behind.

Erosion along Scales Creek threatened a running trail (at the wooden railing) in Wooten Park.

At many of the sites, erosion along streams, drainage areas and other waterways washed away soil. Drainage infrastructure was damaged, and a washout left a running trail dangerously close to collapsing. Other erosion threatened homes and businesses that were left close to falling into eroded areas. During the downpours and flooding from Florence, lots of debris such as limbs, trees and other vegetation also washed into waterways and blocked the flow. Lots of additional sediment flowed into waterways too, settling into the bottom and creating sand bars in some areas.

Jacksonville storm water manager Pat Donovan-Brandenburg described the effect as essentially “covering up or filling in” wetlands. All the debris and sediment meant increased potential for future flooding, and they threatened the ecosystems that are important habitat for fish, oysters and other wildlife.

The project has addressed the erosion and debris/sediment problems by repairing and stabilizing the eroded areas and cleaning out the waterways. Improving water quality in the New River to safe pre-hurricane levels was a byproduct of the work. It’s an important byproduct though.

Jacksonville regularly monitors and tests streams, tributaries and the New River. Since the project began, the city has seen noticeably reduced fecal coliform bacteria and decreased turbidity, which is a measure of water’s clarity. High levels of harmful bacteria in the water can make people sick if they swim or fish in it, and downstream oyster and clam beds can be contaminated too. In fact, poor water quality meant the New River was closed to recreational and commercial use for 20 years prior to 2001. That’s the year the river reopened following efforts to improve the water quality through the Wilson Bay Inititative.

“We don’t want to take a step back and close it,” Donovan-Brandenburg said. “There are a lot of people who use the river, including fishermen, for their livelihood.”

To do the erosion repair and cleanup work, Jacksonville qualified for financial aid from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Work across the twelve sites in the city totaled more than $750,000. Through the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program, NRCS paid 75 percent of the cost. Funding for the remaining 25 percent came from NCDA&CS. The Soil and Water Conservation Division coordinated with Jacksonville leaders on the logistics of that funding. The division has also helped 46 other local sponsors fund EWP projects after Hurricanes Florence and Michael. (A list of those projects can be found in a previous article about other EWP work.)

“The goal of EWP is to reduce the threat to life and property from watersheds that have been impaired because of natural disasters. I think the Jacksonville sites are representative of typical EWP projects that help to reduce watershed impairment,” said Mary Waligora, the EWP assistant program manager for North Carolina.

She explained that some of the EWP work is easily seen where erosion repair ensures homes, businesses and infrastructure don’t collapse into washouts. Other work such as debris and sediment removal in streams may not be as obvious, but it’s still important.

“With debris from a hurricane upstream in a channel, people may not see the harm in that excessive debris until it dislodges and obstructs flow,” Waligora said. “Even once you clean out the debris, you’re not going to see the benefit of flood reduction until you have excessive rain.”

Donovan-Brandenburg said the funding from USDA and NCDA was vital to the project.

“We don’t have spare funding like that [$750,000]. We may have been able to do a couple of the sites, but it would have taken years to fix, and delays would have caused more degradation to the streams and embankments,” she said. “We try not to tax our citizens too highly, but at the same time we have to provide them with services. After Florence, we were tied up providing all the other vital services, we couldn’t get to the essential environmental aspects which are just as important.

“I can’t stress how significant is, when the city spends all its funds trying to repair storm pipes and ditches and roads, there’s just not enough money left for the streams. Without the funding it wouldn’t be possible. Fixing our streams and rivers is just as imperative as fixing roads and drainage and other infrastructure.”

In the case of the EWP projects, fixing waterways protects life and property in multiple ways. Fortunately for local communities, USDA has been expanding eligibility for EWP projects in recent years. After Hurricane Irene in 2011, only one EWP project site was approved in North Carolina, according to David Williams, the assistant director of the Soil and Water Conservation Division. That’s when leaders in the division and the N.C. Department of Agriculture began working to get more assistance from the federal program. The effort paid off after Hurricanes Florence and Michael, when Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, the director of the Soil and Water Conservation Division Vernon Cox and other division leaders requested disaster recovery money from the N.C. General Assembly. When the General Assembly made funds available, NRCS leaders also responded by allowing more projects to qualify for EWP funds.

“Several local sponsors have said they wouldn’t be able to do this work without the USDA covering up to 75 percent or even the NCDA providing up to 25 percent for the match,” Waligora said.

More Photos: Additional Project Sites