Less Little River Dam

Breached Little River Dam. August 2018.

Hurricane Matthew’s impacted many North Carolina communities in 2016. One community, Zebulon, saw a historic dam on the Little River breached by the storm’s abundant rainfall.  The breach has forced the town to reflect on the dam, its repair cost, and whether it should continue to stand along the river.

Repair, replace, or remove?  Zebulon’s City Council has considered what to do with the dam voting not to repair. The costs for keeping the dam through repair are considerable.  Vegetation has taken root in the mortared cracks throughout the structure compromising the dam’s integrity.  Fixing the dam would mean removing the vegetation, replacing the mortar, and repairing the breached area with the town bearing much of the cost.

Sticking with their vote would be to allow the river to return to a more free flowing state. It would also allow use federal funding to make improvements to the park surrounding the Dam.  This approach would also result in ecosystem benefits similar to the recent removal of the nearby Milburnie Dam on the Neuse River.

If the council sticks with their decision, there should be some positive improvement to both the Little River’s ecosystem and the town’s park.

Florida – The Toxic Algae State

Occasionally we use this blog to look outside our state at activities that may give insight to our State’s water resource management. For this post, I wanted to look at a bad situation occurring in Florida.  There, sea birds, mammals, fish, and humans are suffering from a harmful algae bloom along the Gulf shores where a red tide originating in October 2017, has persisted and created a toxic environment for marine life and coastal residents.

A primary contributor to the bloom reportedly is legacy nutrients from Florida’s agricultural industry that were washed out of Lake Okeechobee by Hurricane Irma in 2017.  The load of nutrients timed with seasonal red tide conditions to amplify an already bad situation.

The effects of the toxic algae have touched a broad array of marine fish. Goliath groupers, sea turtles, feeder fish are all washing up dead.

Some of the conditions contributing to the bloom in Florida are present in North Carolina (previous blog posts).  While the State has a number of nutrient reduction strategies in place, The State’s Environmental Management Commission is currently reviewing and revising those.  North Carolina should be mindful of the threat of excess nutrients in their strategy update and curb nutrient laden runoff from our waterways.

A Green White Lake

Dead fish removal after a fish kill at White Lake, NC. Source: NC WRC 2018.

In May 2018, water quality conditions at White Lake, located in Southeast NC, had deteriorated to the point where the Town of White Lake felt action was needed. Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus in the lake and warm spring temperatures had resulted in high algae levels turning its once clear waters to green.  A video posted by Kyle McGee illustrates some of these conditions.

In response, the Town contracted for $500k with a company to kill algae on the lake through the use of alum (aluminum sulphate). Historically, White Lake’s waters are more acidic however it’s pH levels have been rising in recent years.  The proposed treatment was to coat the lake with alum (aluminum sulphate) to kill the algae. A side effect of that treatment, however, was to raise lower the lake’s pH.

In the end, the State believes that multiple factors including the preceding algae bloom, low dissolved oxygen, and effects of the alum treatment all contributed to the kill.

How bad was the resultant fish kill? A NC Wildlife Resource Commission report on the kill estimated that 115,000 fish encompassing 9 species died, many of which are tolerant of pollution. Overall the report estimated the value of the dead fish at over $600k.

Conditions contributing to the algal bloom are ones that we need to be mindful of at all our lakes. Over development eliminating natural buffers such as wetlands, septic leachate, and over fertilization of lawns can all contribute to algae blooms.  Actions to reduce threats like these will be needed from the town and the State to prevent blooms from becoming a permanent problem for lake residents.

EDIT: Fixed some incorrect wording.

A New Flow Regime

The 400+ mile long Roanoke River winds its way through less populous areas of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina.  It’s a river, however, with a legendary striped bass fishery, much history, and a watershed area larger than the Cape Fear, the largest basin contained within North Carolina.  The creation of two reservoir’s on the Roanoke, Kerr Lake (1940’s) and Lake Gaston (1960’s), changed the River’s natural flow patterns and led to a new era of ‘managing’ the river for multiple purposes, though not necessarily strategically.

Recently, The Nature Conservancy completed an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers who are charged with managing these lakes to meet the multiple use requirements of the lakes in addition to mimicking a more natural flow regime. The management will help better sustain fisheries and have the secondary benefits that include reducing downstream flooding frequency.

“We are the River” a recent video on the Roanoke, details water management along with the river’s history and the challenges it faces. Want to learn more? Check out the short film at http://www.tellyawards.com/winners/2018/non-broadcast/general-nature-wildlife/we-are-the-river/198653/

Kerr Lake State Park.

Report It!

One helpful aspect of the tech revolution is the ability to look up and learn a wealth of information on almost any place using web maps.  This technology connects people with places, helping to answer the important question of where.  NC’s Division of Water Resources has developed an application for reporting fish kills and algal blooms using a map interface.  This reporting application helps identify and locate disturbing problems impacting North Carolina’s water resources.

Next time you’re out enjoying our State and see a fish kill or algal bloom that needs follow up, report it!


DWRs Reporting Application

A Mountain Problem Too

In western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, Fontana Lake is an area not typically associated with algal blooms.  Unfortunately, the Lake is experiencing just that.

The blooms there were first reported in 2012 in the Tuckaseegee arm feeding the lake and began returning annually 2015. The blooms started out as bright green discolored water.  Later, the algal die off turned portions of the lake into a stinky mess of decaying organic matter.

Worse, according to the State’s NC Division of Water Resources, tests have shown the algae to have toxic Microcystis levels that pose a “moderate” health risk, curbing usage of the lake and threatening wildlife.

Historically, nutrient related water quality problems like this have been located in eastern North Carolina.  As the images below show, however, these problems have expanded across the State and demonstrate the need for a statewide solutions to this serious problem

Fontana Lake Algae. Source: NC DWR

P R3

An essential nutrient in the growth of plants, phosphorus (P) when found in excess, can runoff and contribute to algal blooms and fish kills.

NC boasts the largest integrated phosphate mine in the US located in Aurora NC. Worldwide, the phosphate mining industry is a $76 Billion industry.

Most mined phosphorus goes into making fertilizers. About 20% of applied phosphorus is taken up by plants leaving the remaining 80% available for runoff.

Planet Money recently produced a podcast on Phosphorus touching on its importance, scarcity, and market demand. It also talks about ways prolong it’s availability through recycling.

Turns out that phosphorus, while essential for plants, is also a recyclable element in human waste.  Coming up with a solution that keeps the excess P from entering the water while prolonging the availability of the nutrient is a win-win.  Applying the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (R3) mentality to phosphorus may help in the solution to nutrient pollution

Fertilizer Label


20-Years of Water Quality

Organic Nitrogen Trends, 1997-2016. (Source: NC DWR)

A November presentation to the NC Environmental Management Commission gave a snapshot of what’s going on with water quality trends in the State from 1997 to 2016.  Statewide, Ambient Monitoring Stations, or sites where NC regularly monitors water quality, were examined to give both a spatial and temporal understanding of what’s happening in our waterways.

Examining Total Kjehldahl nitrogen (TKN), a pollutant that contributes to water quality impairments such as algal blooms, state analysis sees a troubling trend of increased TKN levels. That increase helped contribute to 7 additional assessment areas being included on the State’s impaired water list.  This trend has also been covered in a previous post.

The State report also finds increases in turbidity and fecal coliform bacteria impairments along with those to fish and bug communities.

While other report findings were not as bleak (decreases in some metals like copper and zinc), the overall picture is one that reminds state officials that more improvements are needed if we are going to take measurable strides in making state waters more fishable and swimmable.

Neuse Opening

What started back in 1997 has reached Falls Lake. Bruce Babbit, then Secretary of the Department of Interior, came to NC looking for a dam removal opportunity to commence a program that would stretch across the nation. Though only 7 feet tall, Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse near Goldsboro was identified as the showcase Dam that would inaugurate this program and it was removed to much fanfare.

Was it a success?  According to US Fish and Wildlife Service research, Yes!  They found that, after removal of Quaker Neck Dam, eggs and larvae of both shad and striped bass moved upstream from Goldsboro all the way upstream to Milburnie Dam near Raleigh (https://www.fws.gov/raleigh/coastal/NeuseAnadromousHandout.pdf).

Fast forward to this week. After a long approval process, Milburnie Dam began being removedHaving seen the blockage this dam creates for spawning fish, I believe this is a good thing for the Neuse River. Fifteen miles of the river’s mainstem are now open to migrating fish and recreational uses of the river will be enhanced.

Though it took two decades to get to this point, it’s good to see the Neuse take a step toward a more natural state with the removal of Milburnie Dam.
Dam Removed!
Milburnie Dam (Before Removal)

The Jordan Game

Not the basketball player whose game was enjoyable to watch but the unnerving game being played with water supply for Triangle communities. This past spring, the NC leg passed Session Law 2017-57, a budget bill funding experimental technologies for reducing harmful effects of nutrient pollution in Jordan Lake, a drinking water source for the Triangle. The bill is being used to fund wide use of SePRO algaecides on the Lake in an attempt to control high algae levels.

The Army Corps of Engineers currently owns and operates Jordan Lake for multiple uses covered in a previous post.  The proposal from SePRO would require the dumping of tons of chemicals and other substances in the lake in an attempt to control algae. Given that the Lake is under Federal control, Corps approval is needed for this plan to make sure uses of the lake are not compromised.

Given that this technology is untried at this scale, the following are some concerns over it:

  • Would this project contribute to another impairment of Jordan Lake? Repeated application of tons of chemicals may adversely affect the biology of the Lake. One of the chemicals being proposed is Copper which, in excess concentrations, can be toxic to aquatic organisms.
  • Without the rule driven requirements to control nutrient pollution, how long would SePRO be funded to continue this project?
  • Could the treatment area be effectively expanded? The project is being tested on this most polluted arm of the lake at a cost of $1.3 million. If successful there, could it be attempted at other polluted areas of Jordan Lake.
  • Is the Lake a good candidate for this product?  The Lake is more shallow than areas where the SePRO chemical treatments have been effectively used.
Kayakers making good use of Jordan Lake.

Overall, there’s little evidence that this will be any different than the failed Solar Bee project. That is, taxpayer money being used to fund experimental technology but not supporting proven nutrient reduction measures. Actual lake clean up is needed so that we can rely on Jordan Lake for our long-term water supply needs.