June 29, 2016

Seashore launches multi-agency approach to stormwater issues

By CATHERINE KOZAK


Persistent stormwater drainage issues in Cape Hatteras National Seashore between Cape Point and Frisco will be addressed in a cooperative arrangement with federal and state agencies to determine how to effectively manage the hydrology in the wetlands around the popular beach area.   

“We’re going to invite every state and federal partner and we’ll be looking at a variety of alternatives,” said National Park Service Outer Banks Group Superintendent David Hallac.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Park Service announced that it has initiated a joint National Environmental Policy Act-based planning process to evaluate its options to alleviate flooding at Cape Point and Frisco. The public will be invited to add its input later this year at scoping meetings, the release said. As part of the process, the park may partner with Dare County, the state Wildlife Resources Commission, the state Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition to Cape Point campground, flooding has plagued beach parking lots near Ramp 43 and Ramp 45, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse parking lot, off-road vehicle Ramps 43, 44, and 49, Lighthouse Road, and areas around the seashore’s administrative offices, the release said.

Closures have been rare, the statement said, but the flooding has at times diminished the visitor experience and made some areas inaccessible.

“We’re constantly in this reactive situation,” Hallac said in an interview. “Something is flooded and we need to do something with it quickly.”

What has become obvious to the superintendent in his efforts to address the flooding is that not only will there not be an easy answer, there has to be a comprehensive and cooperative way to find a long-term solution.   

“There are a lot of moving pieces,” he said.

A provision in proposed state legislation that would allow the Park Service to pump standing water to the ocean would not necessarily resolve what has turned out to be a complex regulatory problem, made more challenging by sea level rise and extraordinary rainfall, Hallac said. But, he added, every potential remedy is on the table right now.

“We’re going to take a real hard look,” he said. “I have no idea what the solutions will end up being. It’s a blank slate, basically.”

Staff from the state Division of Water Resources toured Buxton and Frisco last week with Hallac to get an update on flooded conditions at Cape Point Campground and several beach access ramps.

One impetus for the visit was the legislative provision, said Robert Tankard, assistant supervisor in the division’s Washington, N.C. regional office. But the main purpose, he said, was to offer the division’s assistance to the park in light of additional flooding.  

Although the state said in April that it would not allow the park to dig a trench to the ocean or pump out a pond to the beach because of wetlands regulations, Tankard said the division is committed to helping the Park Service solve the challenging hydrological situation at Cape Point.

“We just didn’t have enough information to allow it,” he said of the permit denial.

Record breaking rainfall last fall exacerbated a long-standing problem with standing water after storms that goes back to 2004, when the state issued a wetlands violation to the Park Service. In response, the park stopped actively managing the drainage system, a series of ditches and canals, partly controlled by a weir or culvert.

It took months for the flooded campground and ORV beach access ramps to dry, only to be inundated again in May and early June by a combined total of about 17 inches of rain from Tropical Storms Bonnie and Colin.

Tankard said in looking at the most recent conditions, he and his supervisor wanted to see if pumping would “even be do-able.”

“Based on what we saw, it would be hard – it’s like pockets of water . . . in one contiguous wetland all the way from Frisco to the Point,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “Some areas are going to be wetter than others.”

Not only are the physical dynamics a hindrance, he said, there are also seasonal protections for nesting birds and turtles that would likely prevent pumping.

So far, the Park Service has not pumped water to drain the area; nor did it ask legislators to allow pumping, Tankard said.

Jordan Hennessy, an aide to state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, said the senator’s office was contacted by constituents concerned about the flooding in the seashore who had asked for assistance.

Hennessy said that before adding the provision to the bill, Cook spoke with Tom Reeder, assistant secretary of environment at the state Department of Environmental Quality, who said he had no problem with the language.

Hennessy said Tuesday that the bill had passed the Senate and had been sent to the House committee on environment.

Tankard said that pumping may well be part of the solution, but it would difficult to pump enough water at one time to dry out flooded areas. As it is, he said, the water table is high, and rainwater essentially “stacks” on top of it. Plus, there is only one drainage system with just one outlet – across Highway 12 by the mini-golf course in Frisco - in the entire wetland.

“If it was practical, I think the Park Service would have already looked at that,” he said of pumping. “And they haven’t.”

Once the Park Service obtains elevation information from Frisco to Buxton, he said, work can begin on analysis of the hydrological system. At the request of the park, the state is helping to assemble the list of federal and state stakeholders who can work together, he added.

“We’re hoping we can find out all the science and all the elevations and come up with a scientific solution where we can actually come up with a plan,” he said. “Because right now, it’s a shot in the dark.”

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