PELETIER — Increase the tidal flow. Decrease storm water runoff inflow.
Those were the age-old ideas discussed Wednesday when the White Oak River Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America held an open forum on the current health and future of the White Oak River.
Unfortunately, solutions are more difficult than ideas, so Amy Brooks Somers, president of the chapter, hopes to convene another meeting in the near future with the intent of attracting more researchers who know about the condition of the river and can offer fresh ideas.
“There are a lot of groups and researchers doing water quality work in the river and we need to get them together,” Ms. Somers said. “We can serve as a central hub to connect them.”
The best idea, Ms. Somers said, might be to develop an inventory of what’s already going on rather than try to reinvent the wheel.
The forum Wednesday at the White Oak IWLA chapter’s headquarters on Hadnot Creek Road did attract a good cross-section of folks with stakes in the future of the river, which runs 48 miles from N.C. State University’s Hofmann Forest in Jones County through Jones, Carteret and Onslow counties before reaching Bogue Sound.
Representatives from the towns of Swansboro and Peletier were there, as were representatives from the shellfish sanitation section of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and the state legislature in the person of Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Jacksonville.
A Carteret County Commission candidate, Caprice Pratt of Cape Carteret, attended, as did Pene DiMaio, of Beaufort, who is gathering petition signatures to run for the state legislature as an independent. Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper, was there, too.
All were present at Ms. Somers’ invitation because the river is, and has been, troubled for years. Back in 2006, the N.C. Coastal Federation, based in the Ocean community between Morehead City and Cape Carteret, undertook a major study of the bacterial pollution in the river and found that almost two-thirds of its oyster and clam beds were closed to harvesting because of high bacteria counts, mostly from storm water runoff from hard surfaces in urban areas.
The study found very high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in four watersheds in the lower river near Cedar Point. In the most extensive bacteria testing ever done on the river, more than 200 water samples were drawn from almost 70 scattered sites, and 89 percent of the samples exceeded federal health standards for shellfish waters.
Andy Haines, environmental program supervisor for the shellfish sanitation section, said Wednesday night that despite efforts by some towns and NCCF, little has changed: runoff is still the main culprit.
It’s a particularly bad problem in the White Oak, in part because the river is low and has high land around it many places, so more runoff enters the river fast, without a chance to soak into the ground.
And, Mr. Haines said, there are also issues with some forum participants’ suggestion that a central sewer system would necessarily help, since sewer systems make even more development possible unless local governments take steps to prevent it.
Several participants, including past White Oak chapter president Jessica Hult and her husband Donald, pointed to decades-old studies they said indicate much of the problem began when the N.C. Department of Transportation built the causeway for the two White Oak bridges on Highway 24 between Cedar Point and Swansboro. The causeway, they said, severely restricted flow, limiting tidal exchange of salt water.
“The river has been effectively dammed,” Ms. Hult said.
Dr. Diana Rashash, an Onslow County-based specialized agent for water quality and waste management with the cooperative extension, noted that years ago, there was a proposal to study the issue, but it never got funded.
Mr. Haines agreed flow is a problem, but he and others noted it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make changes in the road system now. And, he said, even if you manage to increase the flow, you still have the severe runoff problems.
Lawrence Meilleur, a Swansboro planning board member, pointed out that towns, too, are limited by state laws that say local governments generally can’t enact ordinances exceeding state laws on limiting runoff.
Rep. Cleveland said that’s true, but residents can advocate for changes.
Mr. Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper, said those who care about the river should vote for local and state legislative candidates who support better water quality and environmental rules.
All participants at the forum agreed the problems are complex and solutions will not be easy.
Dr. Rashash suggested that to get the ball rolling, the White Oak IWLA chapter “choose a workable chunk” of the river and a particular issue to address.
Bill Norris, a Peletier commissioner who has a long background in water quality and other environmental issues, said the bottom line is something needs to be done.
“When I moved back here 20 years ago, it was worse than when I left, and it’s still going downhill,” he said.
Mr. Baldwin agreed the issues are complex and difficult to address, but “you can’t just sit back and say ‘it’s a big problem and we can’t do anything about it.’”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.