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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Draining the Wetlands

Air Date: Week of

A ruling from the federal courts last June eased restrictions on draining wetlands for development. In southeast North Carolina, where new development has been especially vigorous, there's a cost for both the wildlife and taxpayers.


CURWOOD: Last June, a Federal court gave developers and landowners greater freedom to drain and dredge wetlands without the usual government oversight. The ruling hasn't affected all wetlands equally because officials in different parts of the country have interpreted the court's decision in different ways. North Carolina has been especially hard-hit. Developers there have seized the opportunity to drain thousands of acres in the southeastern part of the state. Conservationists say the move is endangering unique forms of life. Others complain it's also running up a tab for taxpayers. Aileen LeBlanc reports from Wilmington, North Carolina.

(Bird song)

LeBLANC: This part of coastal North Carolina is famous for its southern charm, Civil War history, its beaches, and its hurricanes. The area's called Cape Fear, after the dangerous river mouth where many ships ran aground on the shifting shoals. There is an unsung hero here, a tiny plant, a carnivorous plant or insectivorous, actually. The Venus Flytrap. The plant only grows in the wild within an 80 or so mile radius of Wilmington. And some fear that it's not here for long.

WOOD: Here is a nice little cluster. And even though it's the middle of winter, these plants are still viable. On a warm day like today, these plants can still trap an insect.

LeBLANC: Andy Wood is curator of education at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. He's brought us to a buggy area behind an elementary school in Wilmington. Stepping stones keep our feet relatively dry and keep us from tramping on the flytraps, each no bigger than the end digit of your thumb. We have to stoop close to the ground to get a good look.


WOOD: It has a heart-shaped leaf when it first buds out, and then at the end, where the lobes of the heart come together, out springs this little trap. It looks sort of like a bear trap. It's shaped like a lima bean with each half very flat. And on the round edge of the leaf are little spikes, and those intermesh when the two halves of the leaf close together. There are 6 trigger hairs, 3 on each half of the leaf.

LeBLANC: Andy Wood plucks a blade of grass and tickles the inside of the trap, which is a crimson color.

(Gulls call)

WOOD: It's cold, so it's going to close very slowly. But by stimulating those hairs repeatedly.... See it closed down? It took all of about a second and a half to close to the point where an insect cannot get out of there.

LeBLANC: The flytrap is not out to catch flies for sport. Andy says this plant relies on insects for something it can't get from the soil, the sun, and the rain: nitrogen. And it lives with other bug-eating plants, pitcher plants, sundews, in the wetland areas of this part of Carolina.

WOOD: This is as unique an entity on the planet as you can find.

LeBLANC: So why is the flytrap in trouble?

WOOD: My opinion is that it's in trouble from habitat degradation, habitat loss. What is threatening them right now is ditching and pavement.

LeBLANC: Ditching and paving is just what has been happening on a huge scale here since a legal loophole opened and developers rushed in. It all began last June when a Federal judge decided that the US Army Corps of Engineers could no longer restrict wetland drainage. The state of North Carolina had hoped to step in quickly and fill the breach by adopting its own rules for protection of wetlands by October, but bureaucratic and staffing delays meant the state would wait until March the first to get the new regulations in place. Ernie Janhke of the Corps of Engineers says the amount of wetlands lost to draining since June is overwhelming.

JANHKE: It's massive. One of my staff estimated that in about the 6 months that the Tullock rule has been rescinded, they probably ditched about 3,000 acres of wetlands just in this area alone. Southeastern North Carolina.

LeBLANC: And another estimated 2,500 acres has been ditched since his staff fly-overs in December. The Tullock rule Janhke refers to is a rule that used to give the Corps power over the ditching of wetlands based on the Clean Water Act. The Act gave the Corps power to regulate the filling of wetlands in 1972. In 1993, a Federal court ruled that the Corps had jurisdiction over the draining of wetlands, not just the filling of them. But in June that law was challenged in court and rescinded. The court decided not to ask that it be reinstated, concluding that the current Congress wasn't in the mood to strengthen the Clean Water Act. So what power is the Corps of Engineers left with in their wetland protection program? Ernie Janhke.

JANHKE: Well, we're still left with regulating, you know, filling and, you know, discharge of dredge material. Outside of that, not a whole lot.


LeBLANC: A road runs along the banks of the Cape Fear River as it leaves Wilmington and heads for the Atlantic. Here a flurry of development is going on. This area is in the county's conservation overlay district, which means that nothing is supposed to be done to alter the natural environment. But a walk with Andy Wood down one of the newly-made roads proves that much is being done to alter these wetlands.


WOOD: This is natural flytrap habitat and look, that was a pond that had redfin pickerel, eastern mud minnows, mosquito fish. And it has been ditched. It is bleeding this pond and these wetlands to death.

LeBLANC: Draining wetlands used to be looked at as a way of making useless land useful. It's certainly not illegal. And though the Venus Flytrap is a protected species in the state, it is protected from poaching, not from draining its habitat. And if no draining and filling of wetland areas had ever been allowed, a lot of the current residents of Wilmington and New Hanover County would not have a subdivision to live in. Larry Cahoon is professor of biological science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Cahoon asks just how much ditching and draining can this area sustain?

CAHOON: Every body of water in Hanover County is compromised by storm water runoff. If we're going to drain more wetlands, we're going to pay for it in terms of poorer water quality downstream, and so we're going to wind up with more engineered solutions if we don't protect wetlands. Any policy that opens up more of these wetlands to ditching and draining and so forth is simply going to cost us more down the road. What I see as one of the mismatches is that the people who benefit from the ditching and draining generally are not the ones having to pay for the problems caused by that down the road. So there's a disconnect in there in terms of who pays. But if you live here, you're going to pay for it.

LeBLANC: And it's not just the water quality problem, either. It's flooding. Cahoon says that wetlands designed to hold rainwater, and if these wetlands are replaced by paved surfaces the result is water runoff to somewhere else nearby. And then, engineered ways of trying to fix that problem. David Mayes is stormwater services manager for the city of Wilmington.

MAYES: This map is a 1942 Army map service. This is what Wilmington looked like, Wilmington and New Hanover County looked like. Well, right here is where Pond Valley sits.

LeBLANC: That looks to me like it's all got blue lines on it.

MAYES: These little swampy lines that you see on maps, it was a very wet area at one time.

LeBLANC: Now it's a 600-acre subdivision with a lot of problems, Mayes says.

MAYES: We still have today flooding of streets out in that area that we're trying to correct. We're literally having to tear up the whole street to put in a new drainage system in this area. We've spent money, so far, on a retention pond and at least one phase of the drainage, the actual drainage piping.

LeBLANC: What's it all going to cost, just for Pond Valley?

MAYES: We have projected, in 1997 dollars, the total for Pond Valley is a little bit more than $10 million.

LeBLANC: And who pays for it?

MAYES: Taxpayers.

LeBLANC: According to the Corps of Engineers, Congress is not likely to give the Corps more power over the ditching and draining of wetlands any time soon. County lawmakers are reluctant to regulate beyond the Federal rules. The State of North Carolina, though, will impose new wetland protections on March 1. Under the new rules, anyone caught ditching in wetlands could face a $10,000 fine. But many think the state's regulations are coming too late. The bulldozers are digging now. The spiderweb of ditches is spreading. There are fewer pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus flytraps. And there are fewer wetlands here every day. For Living on Earth, I'm Aileen LeBlanc in Wilmington, North Carolina.



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