The National Park Service had two scoping meetings in October — one in Manteo and one in Buxton — to get feedback and ideas from the public on the issue of flooding in the Buxton and Frisco areas of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The meetings came in the middle of a public comment period on the flooding issue that began on Sept. 21 and ends today.
The meetings, held just 10 days after Hurricane Matthew battered southern Hatteras and Ocracoke with high winds and a destructive storm surge, were lightly attended. Only about a dozen members of the public attended the Buxton meeting.
The comments have also been light, to say the least.
Seashore superintendent David Hallac said today that a grand total of two people had commented on the park planning website as of mid-afternoon.
Therefore, he said, because of Hurricane Matthew, the Park Service is going to extend the comment period for another two weeks.
It’s clear that a lot more park users are interested in this issue than attended the meetings or made comment, perhaps because much of the island has been preoccupied with hurricane recovery.
Hallac said the Park Service will issue a news release by Monday, officially reopening the comment period. Since the decision to reopen it was made just today and the comment period ended today, some people might have trouble making comments over the weekend.
But by Monday, he said, the comment process should be back on track.
Since many park users are affected by the issue of lingering stormwater after heavy rains, I am going to briefly summarize the Oct. 20 meeting in Buxton and provide a link to the PowerPoint presentation that I think many of you will find quite interesting because of its use of historical photos to examine the area that floods so badly after really heavy rain.
Of course, The PowerPoint will not have Hallac’s lively commentary, but it’s still quite informative.
Several locations in Buxton in the Cape Point area and in Frisco in the Ramp 49 area have experienced persistent flooding after heavy rains in the past decade. The areas include the Cape Point Campground, beach parking lots (near Ramp 43 and old 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 flooding events have become more frequent — with two significant flooding events in a year’s time.
After Hurricane Joaquin brushed by the southeast coast, followed by several northeasters, in late September and early October of last year, there was a record rainfall. All of the areas prone to flooding saw some recording flooding — and some of the stormwater hung around until almost Christmas.
About the time everything got good and dried out last spring, the Buxton/Frisco area had more record rainfall over the Memorial Day weekend — and more flooding, some of which hung around this time until July 4.
Seashore users were really unhappy that their access to the beach was curtailed and that the Cape Point campground was unusable . Seashore officials say that although most seashore facilities have remained open while flooded, “flooding can diminish the visitor experience and make access to some areas challenging during large rainfall events.”
Seashore officials also had to field a bunch of complaints about access.
Many, if not most, seashore users can remember when the park just cut a ditch from the Buxton/Cape Point campground area to the ocean and let the stormwater drain until the facilities were usable again.
Why, folks demanded to know, couldn’t the Park Service just drain all the stormwater through the same ditch into the ocean.
It turns out that the state issued a wetlands violation to the Park Service in 2004, which said that the drainage system violated state and federal law. In response, the park stopped actively managing the system, a series of ditches and canals, partly controlled by a weir or culvert.
Last winter, Hallac started digging into the issue and contacted the state to find out what the seashore needed to do to resume draining the area.
To make a long story short — you can read more in the list of related articles at the end of this blog — the state said there was no way it was going to issue a permit to the seashore to drain the wetlands and to let all the stormwater drain into the ocean.
After discussion with state Division of Water Resources, Hallac decided to take a different approach.
Last June, the Park Service announced that it had initiated a joint National Environmental Policy Act-based planning process to evaluate its options to alleviate flooding at Cape Point and Frisco. The Park Service said its partners in the process would include NOAA, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the N.C. Department of Environmental
Quality, the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The public scoping meeting was a sort-of kick-off to the process.
Hallac said the goals for the planning process include:
- Reviewing the best available data on hydrology, water quality, and elevation.
- Understanding the constraints that may affect the viability of certain management actions
- Developing a range of alternatives that would mitigate impacts of flooding on visitor and administrative activities
- Developing a preferred alternative that can be supported by the interagency team.
Two staff members from the state Division of Water Resource’s Washington, N.C., office attended the public meeting — Robert Tankard and Anthony Scarborough. Interestingly, Tankard is very familiar with the situation since he is the state official who wrote the violation letter to the NPS back in 2004.
The two answered many questions from the audience, and made it plain that the state could not — under state and federal law — issue the Park Service a permit to drain water into the ocean — no matter how pristine that water might be.
“We don’t make the regulations, we just enforce them,” Tankard said during the discussion.
There have also been questions raised about the hydrology and topography of the area, which obviously has been changed by man from erecting the dunes to the establishment of the campground and other roads and buildings.
Some have questioned whether the area around Lighthouse Road in the park is a natural wetland or has it become a wetland and destroyed a maritime forest in the process.
There are no definitive answers to these questions at this point, but the photos in the presentation Hallac made are very interesting to study, especially if you know the area well.
And, it would seem from the photos that the area that floods today has been a wetland for many decades — perhaps before the seashore was officially established in 1953.
Hallac said it’s unclear whether the system of culverts and canals controlled by the culvert would even work today, since the topology and perhaps hydrology of the area has changed so much.
The state has asked the Park Service to do a new elevation study of the Cape Point area, which will figure into the inter-agency deliberations. Hallac said he had hoped to have the study done by now, but it hasn’t been — and will be soon, he added.
Finding the solution to the flooding issue will be complex and challenging.
Here is the conclusion from a 2010 hydrology report of flooding in the area:
“Flooding at the Cape Point campground is the result of natural hydrological processes. The water table rises during wet periods. When the water table is higher than land surface, the area will be flooded. The frequency and duration of flooding can be expected to increase as sea level rises.”
And the frequency and duration of flooding has increased in recent years with record rainfall — and perhaps sea level rise.
“There is probably not going to be a silver bullet here,” Hallac said at the meeting.
All signs, he said, are pointing to an increasing challenge that includes a recognition of sea level rise.
The timeline on the project calls for public scoping this fall.
Data acquisition will be ongoing, and the agencies will engage in planning alternatives this winter. An environmental review document should be completed in the summer or fall of 2017 with a decision document in the fall or winter of 2017.
The public comment period is now extended for two more weeks, and there will be other opportunities for public comment as the process proceeds.
Meanwhile, NOAA is forecasting a warmer and drier winter than normal for our area.
That would be nice for a change.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click hereto see the PowerPoint presentation on the flooding mitigation planning. There are also links to previous Park Service hydrology and water quality reports and to the state’s 2015 assessment of sea level rise.