Park Service offers plan to address flooding in Cape Point area
By CATHERINE KOZAK Coastal Review Online
rainfall since September has left the area around Cape Point, one of
the most beautiful fishing and camping spots in the Cape Hatteras
National Seashore, inundated with water and inaccessible to all but
totally unacceptable that a national campground has sat under water for
six months,” said Bob Eakes, owner of nearby Red Drum Tackle Shop.
“They took what was a natural habitat of cedars and live oak and turned
it into a bog.”
storm-flooded roads and access ramps – whether from rain, tide or
overwash – have been blights at the popular off-road vehicle
recreational area since 2004, when a gated ditch was sandbagged and
stormwater management ceased.
the National Park Service Outer Banks Group has proposed a plan to
solve the persistent drainage problem at Cape Point, a dynamic corner
of beach and wetlands bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Buxton Woods
its plan, a 3- to 4-foot trench would be dug to allow water to drain
into the ocean, and an upstream culvert would be converted to a weir.
Feb. 26 document, officially a request for a federal consistency
determination, must be reviewed by the state Department of
Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources, which will make a
determination whether to authorize it within 60 days.
said that the drainage system had functioned well for the environment
for years, but that the past decade of inaction by the Park Service has
resulted in loss of habitat for protected species, including the
endangered piping plover. The paradox was not lost on the local
community, which now has restrictions on beach driving based in part on
the effects of beach driving on nesting plovers.
not managing it for birds,” he said of Cape Point. “They’re not
managing it for people. They managing it now for mosquitoes.”
Dave Hallac, the current park superintendent, decided soon after he
arrived in January 2015 to try to resolve the drainage problem.
In the process, he traced it back to a state violation notice that was
issued in 2004, after a staff member with the N.C. Coastal Federation
reported her concern about a dark stream of water going toward the
ocean that she had observed while flying over Cape Point’s wetlands.
A subsequent memo to the park provided historical context on the drainage.
the past, when the area flooded, the headgate west of the campground
would be opened and water would drain through a 36-inch culvert under
the dunes,” Larry Martin, a U.S. Dept. of Interior hydrologist, wrote
in a 2005 memo to the superintendent of the seashore.
was helped along by ditch that was dug from the outfall of the culvert
to the ocean. When water in the campground and on the roads had
receded, the headgate would be closed.
hydrology of the Cape Point area has been highly manipulated by
construction of drainage ditches, excavation of sand for beach
nourishment, resulting in formation of ponds, and construction of
artificial dunes,” Martin wrote.
The park opened additional ditches after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, according to Martin.
the complaint from the federation, the two drainage ditches on the
east-facing beach were closed – although another ditch west of the
campground continued draining into the ocean. In April 2004, officials
from the state Division of Water Quality and the Army Corps of
Engineers visited the drainage areas and subsequently issued a
violation notice for draining wetlands. Park staff then closed the
headgate and used sandbags to limit the flow of water from the ditches
through the dunes into the ocean.
the closure of the drainage ditch, interdunal roads south of the
campground have been flooded almost constantly,” the memo said.
The only remedies, Martin wrote, would be elevating the roads or opening a ditch to the ocean.
Tankard, assistant supervisor in the regional office of the state
Division of Water Resources, said that it seems that the Park Service
staff read only the first few paragraphs of the notice of violation,
which suggested that one alternative was closing the culvert. But other
options were named further down in the document.
could have done this easily by just providing us a plan and providing
us the water level they were going to maintain,” he said. “But they
took it upon themselves to plug it.”
Tankard, who had signed the 2004 violation notice, said the violation expired long ago.
the review of the proposed drainage plan is favorable, he said, a water
quality certification would be issued as part of the CAMA major permit.
A permit is also required from the Corps of Engineers, Tankard
said. The division will continue to monitor the wetland water
levels with gauges.
the Park Service had issued its proposed drainage plan, Hallac said
that it was considering installing a pumping system. But the idea was
scrapped because the noise would disturb wildlife.
every tropical storm or major rain, access ramps 43 and 44 and the
campground inevitably would flood. But it has never been as bad as it
has since late September, Hallac said.
a series of storms, including Hurricane Joaquin, he said, water was
knee high around access roads and beach driving ramps to Cape Point –
likely the most popular ramps in the seashore. By necessity, the roads
were closed, and were not reopened until standing water was a foot or
less. Additional rainstorms exacerbated the situation.
forced Ramp 44 to be closed to off-road traffic from October to before
Christmas. As recently as last month, rainwater covered marshes and
“The most common complaint I heard was ‘You made us drive through the saltwater, ’Hallac said.
Testing of the floodwater, however, revealed no more salt, he said, than the amount in bottled water.
said that according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, rainfall at Cape Hatteras from September through
February usually averages about 22 inches. But in the last six months,
36.61 inches had fallen, making that period the wettest six months
since 1895 when the Weather Service started keeping records in the area.
an off-road vehicle tour last month of Cape Point, Hallac pointed out
locations of canals and culverts that had been part of the former
no natural drainage,” Hallac said, hopping out of his truck just past
Ramp 45 at South Beach, a bald stretch of sand at least 500 feet to the
ocean that is closed to off-road vehicles. “We were digging a pretty
big ditch to get it out here.”
the tour, Hallac pointed toward the man-made Salt Pond where water used
to collect, now flat and filled with sand. Scrubby vegetation
soon became thicker, and Hallac stopped at the place where the culvert
had been closed and sand-bagged in 2004.
The gate is opened, he said, but no one knows whether water is able to flow through it.
drainage canal is behind Cape Point Campground, where virtually every
one of the 200 campsites was waterlogged. Picnic tables stood in
grass covered in inches of rain.
“You see, “Hallac said, “you look left, you look right. The whole area is flooded.”
staff gauge – a ruler on a two-by-four – had measured as high as 100
centimeters – about 39 inches. Last month, it measured 80
centimeters, or about 31.5 inches. In order to maintain the integrity
of the wetlands, water should be managed to about 20 to 30 centimeters
or about 8-12 inches.
Ford, a Park Service wetland ecologist in New Orleans, said that
re-establishing the ditch seemed reasonable, especially in light of
climate change and rising seas. “Drainage into the ocean is not an
unnatural thing,” he said. “This is pretty extreme rain. I’m surprised
there’s still flooded areas.”
money is available, he said, the Park Service would like to install
water wells – a small pipe in the ground – to collect data on sea level
rise at Cape Point.
Ford said he does not expect the proposed project to be a detriment to the wetland.
But fixing the hydrological balance at Cape Hatteras is another challenge, he said.
Woods’ wetlands have degraded over time and are showing signs of
stress. And pavement at the campground hinders natural drainage,
although he said no one is talking about removing it.
“It wants to be a wetland,” Ford said.
Egghart, an environmental specialist who has visited Cape Point for 45
of his 55 years, said that the irony of the Park Service’s newly
proposed plan is that it essentially is reconnecting the old
self-regulating system that had allowed the stormwater to drain through
the dune line to the ocean, without depleting the healthy water level
in the wetland.
“This is what should have been done 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s so simple.”
story is provided courtesy of N.C. Health News, a website covering
health and environmental news in North Carolina. Coastal Review Online
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