Cape Fear Request Draws Fire

WILMINGTON — State water quality officials are moving forward on a request to reclassify a portion of the lower Cape Fear River as swamp, a proposal drawing sharp criticism from some members of the organization asking for the change because it would lower a key water-quality standard.

The Lower Cape Fear River Program, a collaboration of local governments, academia, industry and the public, is asking that about 16 miles of the Lower Cape Fear River Estuary currently classified as “SC” waters be changed to “supplemental swamp.”

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources uses classifications to set water quality standards and protect fish and wildlife in surface water, including streams, rivers and lakes.

The portion of the river under review for reclassification has been designated “SC” for a couple of decades. “SC” waters are tidal salt waters protected for recreation activities such as fishing and boating that involve minimal skin contact.


Mike Mallin

Kemp Burdette

The current classification sets the minimum dissolved oxygen, or DO, levels at 5 milligrams per liter. That minimum, according to the Lower Cape Fear River Program Advisory Board, can’t be met because of natural drainage into the river. Changing to the swamp classification would lower that standard.

A 2009 study determined that point sources – pollution contributors such as discharge pipes – “had a minor contribution to the DO deficit and that even with 30 to 70 percent reductions in loadings of oxygen demanding materials from tributaries and wetlands/marsh systems, the DO standard of 5 mg/L could not be achieved between 20 and 30 percent of the time,” according to the request signed by Chris May, the advisory board’s chairman. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The almost 79,000 acres of river in New Hanover County runs upstream of Toomers Creek to a line across the river between Lilliput Creek and Snows Cut. This section of river has been listed as impaired for DO and pH since 1998.

Reclassifying a portion of the river to swamp would lower the current standards for DO and pH, a change that, with a proposed water quality management plan, could improve water quality, according to a state Division of Water Resources official.

“The argument made is that there is already natural drainage from riverine wetlands and salt marshes,” said Elizabeth Kountis, environmental senior specialist with the division’s Classification and Standards Rules Review Branch. “What the swamp classification essentially does is it says that, as compared to the classification that it is now, the pH can be at a lower level and the DO level can be at a lower level if they’re caused by natural conditions.”

In its July 9 proposal to the Environmental Management Commission’s Water Quality Committee, water resources officials note that a water quality management plan with the reclassification would streamline existing rules for current and new wastewater dischargers. The commission, or EMC, is the state’s major rule-making board. It would have to approve the reclassification.

The proposed water quality management plan was added because the portion of river under review is not a typical swamp, Kountis said.

“We recognize that it is a little bit of an atypical thing when someone thinks of it as a swamp” she said. “The management plan is specifically addressing the dischargers. The limits are very similar to the limits of high quality waters. You definitely want to keep those dischargers having to meet limits that are fairly stringent. One thing that this does is it basically provides a path for folks to follow when it comes to dischargers. It just lets them know exactly what the limits are going to be expected of them. For instance, those local communities, for future planning, have a clear path to follow. That’s one thing that’s important.”

The proposed reclassification, paired with the management plan, may positively affect the water’s current impairments, a determination that cannot be made until monitoring begins, Kountis said.

Critics of the proposal argue that reclassification will not address impaired DO and pH levels.


Critics say the proposed reclassification will do nothing to stem pollution from hog farms along the Cape Fear River. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Michael Mallin, research professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and research coordinator for the Lower Cape Fear River Program, said the problem isn’t the point sources, but rather, the non-point sources.

The tributaries that flow into the river basin include runoff from farmlands.

“When you go up the river, especially up the Black River and Northeast Cape Fear River, there are all those massive hog farms and poultry farms and traditional agriculture as well,” Mallin said. “The runoff is not regulated at all in the Cape Fear River Basin. The state’s not doing anything about it and that’s a big problem. The reclassification, for future point sources, they would have the strictest point sources. The non-point sources, they’re uncontrolled. It’s ridiculous to classify the Cape Fear River estuary as a swamp.”

Most worrisome, Mallin said, is possible implications of low DO levels on anadromous fish, which travel from saltwater to freshwater upstream to spawn.

Anadromous species found in the Cape Fear River include American shad, hickory shad, striped bass and two species listed on the federal Endangered Species Act – Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon.

“If the DO in the river continues to deteriorate that could pose a barrier or hardship to those species trying to get through,” Mallin said.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear RiverKeeper and executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, expressed similar concerns.

“They’re going to turn around and make the water quality so bad that they can’t survive even if the fish are spawning,” Burdette said.

A N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission spokesperson referred questions about the proposed reclassification to the Division of Water Resources. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“What is being left out is the biggest contributor to low DO in the entire river, which is nonpoint runoff, which is primarily coming from agriculture,” Burdette said. “There are more hog CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in the Cape Fear River Basin than there are any other place on the planet. There’s also an explosion of poultry CAFOs on the river. For all practical purposes there is zero regulation on the poultry industry in this state. It’s like the wild west for them right now.”

The proposed reclassification could become effective as early as Nov. 1, 2015, if the proposal is approved by the EMC and is not sent to the state legislature for consideration. State lawmakers would be asked to review the proposal if DENR receives 10 or more letters of opposition to a reclassification.

A 60-day public comment period will be opened about halfway through the review process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has to give its final stamp of approval on a reclassification.

It’s a proposal Burdette said he expects to challenge to the end. “I imagine that we’ll be fighting this pretty hard,” he said.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.