Store at 7:30 a.m.," were the directives for a cloudless morning in
late September on Ocracoke Island. At the dock behind what was once
Jack's Store, now the Waterman’s Exhibit and office for the Ocracoke
Foundation, a group of five Ocracokers converged, some still yawning
with coffee cups in hand.
Testing water quality of Ocracoke’s Silver Lake harbor is underway
This was the second of several testing days scheduled to learn as much
as possible about the quality of the waters of Ocracoke’s beautiful and
beloved harbor, Silver Lake.
Water is the mainstay of life at Ocracoke. Be it ocean,
harbor, it permeates every aspect of island life, providing the means
for transportation, seafood, recreation, and jobs relating to fishing
and tourism. Silver Lake Harbor, or the Creek, as it is known to many
locals, is the focal point of the village, where islanders and tourists
converge to work, shop, dine, and chat.
Many of us recall the days when we plunged off the dock to swim in the
harbor, but those days are long gone. Silver Lake Harbor water is
currently classified by the North Carolina Division of Water Quality in
the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as "SC"
--acceptable for secondary recreation use. This means that fishing,
boating, and, other activities involving minimal skin contact are
Very little official testing of the harbor has been done in recent
years, however, and there are concerns about pollution from the many
boats that cruise in and out of the harbor, the "live-aboards," where
people stay full-time on their boats, oil from the road, pesticides,
and runoff from septic tanks, particularly during and after storms.
The testing currently underway was being done at the request
of the Ocracoke Foundation and facilitated by Mac
Gibbs, the county extension director for the Hyde
Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension and coordinator for
North Carolina State University programming in Hyde County.
They want more accurate information about the harbor’s water quality in
order to determine the best way to set up much needed public restrooms
in the village, install BMPs (Best Management Practices) at drain sites
along the harbor, decide if a dedicated public boat pump-out station is
needed, and to determine what to do about standing water --particularly
stormwater-- in the roads that border the harbor.
The tests are being overseen by three professors from NCSU --
Drs. Michael Hoover, Sushama Pradhan, and Alexandria Graves, one of
whom, Dr Graves, was here that day. Some of the results, such
water temperature and acidity, were determined on the boat
the water was collected. Other tests were set up in Jennifer Garrish’s
science room at Ocracoke School.
The ultimate goal, as described by Robin Mann of the Ocracoke
Foundation, is "to improve the water quality of Silver Lake through
stormwater and wastewater improvements and facilitate a village-wide
restroom plan for the traveling public that is both environmentally
friendly and blends with the historic village architecture."
The immediate goal is to identify and document various levels of
acidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pollution, and then develop
the best management plan possible for the harbor and village waters.
The National Park Service does its own testing on waters
the parameters of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the state has,
in the past, used their ferry system to conduct water tests in Pamlico
Jennifer Garrish, Ocracoke School’s science teacher, learned how to do
water sampling in the ‘90s when she worked for the state. She has done
testing in Pamlico Sound before off the Park Service docks near the
ferry and has shown her students how to examine water samples with a
microscope, so as to search for phytoplankton and "whatever else might
be living in there." She has also done some testing on her own in
Silver Lake Harbor and says that earlier she found no red flags to
cause concern. She is not able to run all the tests currently being
On this particular September morning, a tall lanky young man by the
name of Jeff Bullard, a research assistant from the Soil Science
Department at NCSU, brought the equipment needed for the tests and
everyone climbed into the skiff tied up at the dock.
Ocracoke commercial fisherman Gene Ballance steered the skiff, using a
GPS to guide him to a spot in front of the Anchorage Inn. This is one
of the three sites in Silver Lake that has been designated as a test
It is important to replicate the tests exactly the same way in the same
spot each time. Two water samples were taken, one from the surface and
one near the bottom. Beverly Meeker recorded the data as Tom Payne and
Rob Dennis collected and tested water samples. Among the qualities they
were testing for were water temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved
oxygen, and oxygen production potential.
Sample bottles of water were stored in a cooler to take back to
Ocracoke School, where other volunteers were helping set up a
laboratory in the science room. After testing three sites in Silver
Lake, the crew docked the boat and drove to two stormwater sites in
marshy areas in the village and replicated the tests there.
Back in the lab, Alex Graves of NCSU was working with Jennifer
Garrish and Rita Thiel, both of whom were volunteering for the project,
to set up a membrane filtration system so that they could test the
water for total coliform bacteria. Coliforms are bacteria that
live in the intestine of warm-blooded mammals, including humans. Their
presence, harmless in itself, would indicate that contamination exists.
They would use Petri dishes to grow the cultures.
Graves said that the scientists are most concerned when they see
elevated counts or large numbers of these microbes.
There's another sentence that reads "Their presence, harmless in
itself, would indicate that contamination exists". This is
but I think it is important to note that we are most concerned
when we see elevated counts or large numbers of these
“I know we should never say never, but I will dare to do so” she
explained. “We will never sample a body of water and not
coliforms, unless you rid the world of wildlife and pets.”
Graves explained that "when you are equipped with the proper
knowledge, you know how to address it (the problem).”
She says that her part is source tracking of bacteria such as E. coli
to see if it exists in a water sample, and where it comes from. The
evaluation will be based on all the samplings, and the study will
examine the peaks and lows and take a cumulative look at all the
Rita Thiel, fourth grade teacher at Ocracoke School, finds it
important to volunteer her time to the project because "If there are
problem areas in Ocracoke, we should be made aware of it. If there are
septic issues, we need to find ways to improve them and use better
The professors hope to have the results of the testing early
2011, after all the data is examined and analyzed. At that time
workshops will be set up for the community to decide on a plan of
action, so that Ocracoke's precious waters can be managed in the best