By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Tideland News Writer
A certain sentiment became evident during a public meeting Monday evening: A well-executed watershed management plan is absolutely critical if Swansboro is to preserve its unique character.
Brent Hatlestad, who grew up in Swansboro and has returned upon his retirement, put it this way: “I lived in Swansboro when it was a Norman Rockwell kind of place. And I want the same thing for my grandchildren.”
Hatlestad was among 20 or so folks in the One Harbor Church sanctuary – the former Swansboro Town Hall – on Monday, there to learn more about the town’s effort to put a watershed management plan in place. Speakers included Scott Chase, town manager, Frank Tursi, town commissioner, and Mariko Polk, GIS watershed specialist with the N.C. Coastal Federation.
The town has partnered with the federation to produce the plan, according to Chase. The cost of the plan, $5,000, is shared equally between the federation and the town.
The effort comes at a time when Swansboro is dealing with storm water problems associated with development: As more rooftops and driveways are added to the community, there is less open space to absorb rain. The result of more runoff is twofold, pollution of creeks and rivers, and flooding.
The problem reached the point that this year, the town began charging a fee to fund storm water mitigation efforts.
In his comments, Tursi explained that federal funds are available to mitigate problems created by storm water runoff. He was referring to the Section 319 Grant program, established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1987 to provide funding for efforts to reduce pollution from storm water runoff.
In North Carolina, the Division of Water Resources administers the 319 Grant Program. The state receives about $4.5 million annually for efforts to reduce storm water runoff, also referred to as non-point source pollution. One of the first steps toward earning a share of those funds is to create a watershed management plan.
“Our goal is to come up with a blueprint,” Tursi said. “We need to recognize that we have a problem … and come up with solutions.”
The law requires that the federal government provide the funds for communities that want to put solutions in place, according to Tursi.
“It’s very competitive,” he said of the process to earn the grants. Of the 100 or so that are submitted each year, only 15 or 20 are funded.
The plan would also provide the town a source of information to bring into budget deliberations, according to Chase.
“This helps us identify capital projects as we go through the budget process,” he said.
In her comments, Polk explained that the process of establishing the plan – which got underway in October – is to restore impaired water quality in the Swansboro watersheds. The restoration “target,” so to speak, is to “turn back the clock” to 1993.
That year, while seemingly random, is one for which the study has produced runoff data, according to Polk. In the PowerPoint she presented, the amount of Swansboro’s runoff generated within a specified period of time was compared with the amount generated in 2016. In order to return to the 1993 milestone, runoff will have to be reduced by 13 million gallons.
To reach the goal, the town must ensure that future development and redevelopment is done responsibly. But solutions also include “little things” on an individual basis, such as diverters for gutter downspouts, rain gardens, rain barrels and permeable paving: anything that gives rainwater a chance to soak into the soil, which keeps pollutants out of the surface water.
“We’re hoping that with all the little things, they add up,” Polk said.
It is safe to say that Lee Combs has the same hope. The Swansboro man has been following the to watershed management plan process very closely.
“I’m extremely concerned about the whole stormwater issue,” he said as people milled about after the presentation, looking at maps.
Swansboro’s unique position – at the meeting of the White Oak River and the Atlantice Intracoastal Waterway – makes storm water control even more important.
“If we’re not stewards of it, who is?” Combs asked. “Whatever it takes to stop the pollution, we have to do it.”
While he had words of praise for the town commissioners and actions they have taken to date to control runoff, Combs said he would like to see more action.
“I’m for changing the UDO (the town’s list of development ordinances) to make sure that developments be required to capture all of their runoff,” he said. “Whatever it takes, that’s a reasonable goal.
“If the town won’t step up, who will?”
Hatlestad said that he would like to see people get involved in the watershed management. He mentioned homeowners’ associations, pointing that there are six or seven such neighborhoods in the watershed.
“The HOAs need to be engaged,” he said. “That would be a greater Swansboro population that is engaged. Once we get engaged … we can do anything.”
Combs and Hatlestad agreed that the town must look to go beyond the state limits on allowable runoff, if it is to make an impact. To illustrate the point, Hatlestad decried the fact that new construction in his neighborhood, Swan Harbour, had installed a pipe to divert runoff into the river. It was, he said, something that could have been done in a better way.
“We don’t want to stop development,” Combs added. “We just want it done responsibly.”
Citizen engagement is going to be critical, according to Polk.
While she was pleased with the meeting itself – “It was great,” she said – there is more that can be done, starting with bringing in more opinion.
“Our real hope is we’re going to get feedback from the community,” Polk said. “The more feedback and involvement, it only strengthens the plan.”
She encourages citizens to look over the plan and offer comment by visiting the Swansboro website.