Department aid helps restore ponds, protect watersheds

by | Jul 1, 2021

When Hurricane Matthew swept through eastern North Carolina in October of 2016, Russell Thompson’s dream of leaving a good piece of property to his son was put in jeopardy. While most of his land survived the flooding rain without too many issues, the influx of water at his pond broke the dam. For Thompson, it was a major blow.

He lives in the Green Pond area of southern Nash County on land that’s been in his family since an original land grant from the king of England. Part of his property also includes the pond with the dam that was built in 1954. He used the pond for his cows, for fishing and to irrigate his fields.

“It was completely drained,” Thompson said.

So he reached out to the Nash County Soil and Water Conservation District and his local Farm Service Agency office (an office of USDA). Edward Long who is the district’s director said he helped Thompson apply for financial assistance from FSA and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Part of the disaster recovery funds approved by the N.C. General Assembly went to the department’s Soil and Water Conservation Division. The division was then able to allocate millions of dollars to pond repair needs across eastern North Carolina.

Thompson was approved for assistance. After lots of logistical work by the state division, the local district and USDA entities, his pond repair was finished in May of 2020. The project replaced his compromised concrete dam with an earthen dam complete with a properly sized principle and emergency spillway to protect the dam in future major rain events.

“It’s going on down to the next generation – my son. He’s going to be the sole heir to all that farmland, and he won’t let it go. So I know it’s solid for another generation,” Thompson said. “It was important to me to give it to him just like I got it. I’ve tried to be a good steward to it.”

Thompson was one of 19 pond owners who received repair assistance after Hurricane Matthew, thanks to funding from FSA and the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Soil and Water Conservation Division. (Again, the money awarded by the division came from disaster recovery funds approved by state lawmakers.) While the federal and state financial assistance was a major help, Thompson also had to contribute about $9,000 to qualify for the assistance.

“These guys were very instrumental in helping me get off on the right foot,” Thompson said. “When they came out to inspect this dam, because of the age they decided to not do a repair but to do a complete replacement.”

From the application, to the inspection, design and construction, there were lots of logistics to figure out and manage. The Soil and Water Conservation Division’s deputy director David Williams oversaw many of those logistics along with division engineer Cindy Safrit. They coordinated the flow of funding and the hiring of engineers and construction contractors, among many other steps along the way. The state division also worked with USDA offices and Long and others in the county district to be sure all the pieces of the project were falling into place.

“Just one example is David had a spreadsheet to help figure out how all the funding would work. We had to study on it a little bit to figure it out,” Long said.

Of course, Williams and his team have also been working on the 18 other pond repair projects related to Hurricane Matthew. Since Hurricane Florence, another 24 pond repair projects have also been contracted. It’s all just part of the daily work in the Soil and Water Conservation Division. While Williams deals with lots of different projects of various types, he tries not to lose sight of the reason behind each of the assistance programs.

“In these pond repair cases, the farmers depend upon that water source,” Williams said. “A lot of them are watering livestock or growing vegetables or other crops that depend on that water for their production.”

Williams said there have been several challenges to getting the work done since the hurricanes. One significant challenge has been finding contractors who can do the type of work needed while also doing that work within the state’s disaster recovery budget. The right contractors have been so busy, and the costs have risen so much, it’s taken much longer than division leaders had hoped.

Nonetheless, Thompson is really happy with the work that was done. He praised the North State Environmental Group and the engineering contractor Resource Institute by name. The division contracted with Resource Institute, Inc. to coordinate the engineering and construction for many of the pond repairs following Hurricane Matthew.

“I don’t think North State could have sent a better team down here. They worked with me. They were very conscientious. In fact, the foreman Chris Dancy and I have become friends and stay in touch,” Thompson said. “Or if I ran into a snag along the way, I’d call Alan Walker with Resource Institute, and in a few minutes I’d get a call back telling me it was taken care of.”

An elevated panoramic view of Thompson’s repaired pond. (Alan Walker, Resource Institute)

These days, he feels a lot better about the condition of his pond. With a new dam, it’s better than ever, and he’s proud to be able to pass it on to the next generation. He’s thankful to all those who made it possible including the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

“It would have been a struggle on my own to put it all back the way it had to be done. I probably couldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have done it at my age,” Thompson said.