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High Water Table, Wetlands Causing Flooding At Cape Hatteras National Seashore


High water tables are being blamed by Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials for flooding problems in some low-lying areas, such as the Cape Point Campground. Undated file photos.

Wet weather this fall has created a problem of standing water at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where officials say a high water table is responsible. Quick solutions, though, are not readily available, as various state and federal laws prevent the park from simply draining the water away.

While the national seashore has a drainage ditch system, it was built "decades ago before the Wetlands Protection Act and other modern environmental laws came into existence," says Cyndy Holda, the seashore's spokeswoman. 

"The ditches were meant to reduce water levels in and around Cape Point Campground, which was built in a wetland, but ironically the drainage system had no fixed outlet, so the system holds water rather than drains it."

In years past, she says, the seashore staff would use heavy equipment to trench ditches to drain the water from wetlands areas and roads to the beach. However, when crews did that in 2004 the North Carolina Division of Water Quality issued a Notice of Violation to the seashore for violating state laws that prohibit draining wetlands, the spokeswoman added.

"The NPS has studied the issue for several years, and there are no easy fixes (such as cutting a "drain" any time high water occurs) that would be legal or appropriate," Ms. Holda said. "An NPS hydrologist and a wetland ecologist have visited the area since 2004 and written technical reports stating that the 2004 action not only violates state and federal law, it also violates NPS policy. Their assessment is that the area floods because of an elevated water table; in essence, the water table is 'above ground level' wherever there is standing water, which occurs over an extremely large area.

"The most practical long-term solution, with proper planning and compliance, may be to raise the road and provide proper drainage underneath the road, particularly since flooding seems to be occurring more often in recent years," she said.

Areas impacted by heavy rains this fall (after Hurricane Irene) include the wetlands surrounding portions of Lighthouse Road near the Cape Point Campground and beach Ramp 44. A section of the eastern end of the road several hundred yards long has been under 6-12 inches of standing water for weeks, said Ms. Holda.

"ORVs have generally been able to drive through the water to reach Ramp 44, which for the most part has remained dry. Though not as convenient as Ramp 44, ORVs have also had reliable access to Cape Point from Ramp 49," she said. "We realize that some people would prefer that we simply cut a ditch (the "drain") to the ocean, like in the old days, to lower the water level across a large wetland area enough to reduce the standing water on the road; however, as stated previously, that would violate laws and policy and would not be appropriate in a unit of the national park system."

This coming winter the seashore staff plans to begin work on an environmental assessment that would evaluate the impacts of proposed infrastructure improvements. That document is expected to look at the options for addressing "the flood-prone eastern portion of Lighthouse Road," said Ms. Holda.


The NPS mangers have this correct. Draining
freshwater sedges in a National Park is illegal. 
ORV proponents should pursue constructive
alternatives (like raising the road and the campground) rather than draining a productive
maritime marsh in a national park.


According to the North Carolina Department of Water Quality, with whom I have had extensive discussions on this very subject, it is in fact LEGAL to drain these waters down to keep the road dry and surrounding areas as best as possible such as the campground, fish cleaning table area etc. All NPS needs do is obtain permission to do so which is easily done.
I don't know where you got your information SS1, but the persons involved in such an option disagree with you wholeheartedly excepting NPS who apparently have no issues with creating a biohazard in this area. Even their own 2005 study shows bacteria levels that far exceed NCDWQ levels considered a hazard to human health. 

The property in question is a federal fresh water wetland that occasionally spills over on the NPS road, not state land. I believe if NPS mangers diverted that water to an ocean outfall it would be a violation of a number of federal laws and regulations. In any case National Parks are always held to the highest standers when it comes to environmental decisions such as draining wetlands. I guess this is why park mangers don’t agree with the ORV users solution.

The water in that sedge has not made anyone sick or caused any more of a “biohazard” than marshes anywhere else. The idea that wetlands are a biohazard was abandoned years ago, wetlands ecosystems have a cleansing affect on contaminated water. This particular wetland is a vital and important habitat for a considerable number of migratory birds in the Park and has not posed any hazard to them.

My take on this issue is that this is not about biohazards but a perceived inconvenience for visitors who want to access the Cape Point area of CHNS via an ORV. Driving slowly (and safely) through the puddles will rinse off much of the sand and salt that accumulates on vehicles that are leaving the NP Beach. Fix the road, the campground, and the fish-cleaning table. Don’t drain the marsh.

Pardon me SS1, but enterococcus bacteria counts in excess of 200/100ml are considered hazardous to human health and occur in the same waters people drive through, walk through and ride their bikes through. NPS studies conducted in 2005 have shown enterococcus levels at 1184/100ml. Recent testing has shown fecal coliform bacteria levels at a level three times the level considered hazardous to humans and as NPS reports, every time we have a fresh water event, these levels spike. The water in question has been upwards of a foot deep since September and grows deeper with every rain.

Unfortunately for you SS1, I actually do know what I'm talking about, I know who calls the shots with the water and I also know who is responsible for this hazard to include the now enormous Asian Tiger mosquito population in this area, a known vector for West Nile Virus.
If you care to educate yourself on the subject, I suggest you spend some time talking to the folks at NCDWQ. 

From my observations, (over 50 years) this
entire area is normally seasonally wet during the fall and winter. I recently
drove through this area  (11/27)
and the water in the road was no more than a few inches deep and posing no
problem to numerous vehicles that were accessing ramp 43 and 44. Migratory
waterfowl were present in the area.


It would be interesting to know who took the
samples of contaminated water and when and where they taken. The point source
of the contamination should be identified and corrected. Draining contaminated
water into the ocean beach is the wrong course of action.


There is potential habitat for the tiger
mosquito everywhere on Hatteras Island not just in the vicinity of the NPS
campground and road. In any case West Nile Virus does not seem to be an issue
on Hatteras Island. To quote from the local Dare County Website about West Nile
Virus, "Fortunately, the risk of catching West Nile virus is very low.
Even in areas where the virus is circulating, very few mosquitoes are infected
with the virus. Even if the mosquito is infected, less than 1% of people who
get bitten and become infected will get severely ill." I can't find any
reports of anyone contacting West Nile virus on Hatteras Island, (or any one
getting sick as a result of contaminated water on the NPS road)


Preserving the physiographic process is
specifically noted in the enabling legislation for CHNS. The dynamic changing
habitats that accompany these processes are protected. There are other ways of
insuring access to Cape Point beaches besides draining this area. For this and
many other reasons draining this slough is not the correct solution to the
flooding that occasionally inconveniences ORV users. 


I reviewed Wheat’s blog, which I found to be
overwhelmingly dedicated to promoting ORV access and condemning NPS management
and conservation organizations, not public health issues.  I believe this
is not an issue of public health but an issue of national park policy where
natural process would be subjugated for the convenience of special interests.  



Though the water is only inches deep please get a flat tire, then proceed to drop a lugnut into it causing you to have to reach in and look for it not knowing that by doing so you are endangering your life...

Did you take samples of that water you were in?
With an incubation period of 2 to 15 days for West Nile and the average stay on Hatteras being only 7 days I guess there is a SMALL chance these people were diagnosed elsewhere after leaving... Perhaps they did not recognize the symptoms? Or maybe theyare like the other 4 out of 5 that do not have symptoms???


In case you’re missing the point, (you are
probably not) you can move your vehicle a couple of 100 yards to high ground to
change your flat.  There is no
reason to change a tire in a puddle. 
In any case I don’t know for certain where this contaminated water is
supposed to be or if it is still contaminated.


If West Nile Virus was a problem in Dare County
locals would have contracted it and it would be announced in one of the local
newspaper or blogs it hasn’t, it isn’t. Tiger mosquitoes would not locate
themselves just in one habitat next to the road that leads to Cape Point. There
is more of a problem with them breeding in old tires, buckets etc. West Nile
virus and Tiger Mosquitoes are a non sequitur. If you are worried about being
bit by a mosquito that could possibly be carrying West Nile Virus don’t come
anywhere near Dare County or CHNS. There are mosquitoes everywhere.


If you are worried about contaminated water in
the National Park I think you be more concerned about how it got contaminated rather
than draining it into the ocean where it could pose a problem to someone
fishing on the south beach.

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