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Updated plan details human, climate damage to wetlands | Coastal Review

Patsy Pond in the Croatan National Forest in Carteret County. Photo: Mark Hibbs
Patsy Pond in the Croatan National Forest in Carteret County. Photo: Mark Hibbs

Plan name, headline corrected

Despite a steady decline in the number of permits issued for human-related impacts to wetlands in North Carolina over the past 30 years, tens of thousands of wetlands in the state’s coastal plain have been destroyed by the changing climate and nonpermitted human activities.

That information is included in the newly updated, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved North Carolina Wetland Program Plan, or WPP, 2021-2025, one encouraged by the federal agency to guide wetland-related work by states and tribes.

Updated plan details human, climate damage to wetlands | Coastal Review
Kristie Gianopulos

“The WPP is not a regulatory document, so it does not make any changes to rules regarding wetlands in the state,” Kristie Gianopulos said in an email response. “It is intended to be a guide for wetland-related projects and work by state agencies, in the areas of monitoring/assessment, regulation, voluntary restoration/protection, water quality standards, and outreach and education. The newly approved plan for 2021-2025 outlines objectives for the (North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality) in these areas.”

Gianopulos is a senior environmental specialist and wetlands ecologist with the department’s Division of Water Resources’ Water Sciences Section.

“This plan also serves as a communication tool, providing a unified vision and priorities for guiding wetland work in North Carolina, as well as establishing a network of partners and stakeholders in accomplishing that work,” she said.

The EPA’s stamp of approval of the plan ensures that the state, tribe or other grant applicant is eligible for program development grant funds from the federal agency.

The state Wetland Program Plan was initiated in 2012 through a group of stakeholders — an array of representatives from government offices, professional organizations, nonprofits, and universities — whose goal was to enhance the state wetland program.

The stakeholder group reconvened last year to update the original five-year plan with a focus on DEQ’s projected wetland work through 2025, said Amanda Mueller the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science, or KIETS, climate leaders program manager and coastal resilience and sustainability initiative coordinator at North Carolina State University and author of the plan and subsequent update.

“The original N.C. WPP addressed the functions and services of wetlands and listed goals and activities needed to further understand and manage North Carolina’s wetlands,” Mueller stated in an email. “The original list of activities was extensive and provided guidance for anyone pursuing wetland projects in the state.”

Some of the projects conducted since the state Wetland Program Plan was first adopted in October 2015 include the following:

  • Assessing state wetlands through the EPA’s 2016 National Wetland Conditions Assessment.
  • Identifying and designating strategic habitat areas for marine and coastal fishery species in the Cape Fear River Basin.
  • Assessing 16 long-term wetland monitoring sites; evaluating the accuracy of National Wetland Inventory maps, or NWI, for the state.
  • Developing and testing wetland hydrology performance criteria for restoration sites.

North Carolina has 3.9 million acres and 16 types of wetlands, including basin, bog, bottomland hardwood forest, estuarine woody wetland, floodplain pool, hardwood flat, headwater forest, nonriverine swamp forest, nontidal freshwater marsh, pine flat, pine savanna, pocosins, riverine swamp forest, salt/brackish marsh, seep and tidal freshwater marsh.

Between Jan. 1, 1990, and Dec. 31, 2019, there were 12,386 permits issued with an impact to nearly 18,000 acres of wetlands.

Since 1990, most permitted impacts to wetlands have occurred in the state’s coastal plain partly because this part of the state has a majority of and the largest wetlands, according to the Wetland Program Plan.

Large permitted impacts in Beaufort, Carteret, Lenoir and Wilson counties were related to activities such as mining, aquafarming, industrial and commercial development, and reservoir creation.

Permit applicants in those instances were required to mitigate wetland impacts through a variety of ways, including preservation, restoration, creation, or in-lieu fees.

Wetland impacts from human activity that does not have to be permitted and impacts from climate change have resulted in the loss of nearly 135,000 acres of nontidal, freshwater wetlands in the coastal plain between 1996 and 2016, according to aerial imagery collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Change Analysis Program.

The greatest loss has been forested wetlands.

According to that same data, there has been a loss of 144 acres of estuarine wetlands since 2006.

The loss of those wetlands was initially attributed to the conversion of wetlands to agriculture, uplands and development, “but are more recently due to conversions to unconsolidated shorelines (2006-2016) and open water (2011-2016), most likely caused by sea level rise, erosion from increasingly frequent and intense storms, and water quality degradation,” according to information provided by DEQ.

The updated Wetland Program Plan includes goals and future directives to monitor the impacts of human-induced and natural events on wetlands to evaluate trends in the number of wetlands and the quality of those wetlands.

The plan also focuses on voluntary restoration and protection of wetlands through state-provided project guidance, low-interest loans and grant funding for proposed projects.

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