Looking out across the Cape Fear River at sunset with pink and orange light reflecting off the water.
Cape Fear Cape Fear River at Sunset © Skip Pudney

Stories in North Carolina

Lessons from the Cape Fear River

How The Nature Conservancy is making North Carolina more resilient to severe storms.

With our history of September hurricanes, North Carolinians would be forgiven if they’d prefer to jump from August to October. But 20 years after Hurricane Floyd and only one year after Hurricane Florence, The Nature Conservancy is leading multiple projects that aim to increase the state’s resilience to future storms.

Modeling Floodplain Restoration

Danica Schaffer-Smith joined TNC’s North Carolina Chapter just before Florence made landfall, and is near the halfway mark of her NatureNet postdoctoral fellowship. Her work is focused on developing models to inform more efficient management practices and restoration of floodplains in the Cape Fear River Basin.

In the aftermath of Florence, both local and national news cycles were dominated with stories of hog lagoons and coal ash ponds flooding following multiple days of heavy rain. Schaffer-Smith is assessing risks to water quality in the basin and analyzing how restoration can help to improve the river, reduce flooding and reduce harmful pollution.

Julie DeMeester, Water Program Director for the North Carolina Chapter, is working with Schaffer-Smith on the NatureNet project in addition to her own work on the Sustainable Rivers Program.

A partnership between TNC and the Army Corps of Engineers, the Sustainable Rivers Program works to modernize water management and improve river health. On the Cape Fear, the Corps is responsible for operating Jordan Lake Dam. DeMeester’s goal is to provide the Corps with more information on how water levels can be optimized to promote healthy ecology downstream. 

Schaffer-Smith and DeMeester agree that the NatureNet project and the Sustainable Rivers Program are complementary and can work together to form a complete model for improving river and floodplain health.

“The Sustainable Rivers Program deals with instream flows, and NatureNet is thinking about what’s happening on the surrounding landscape that contributed to those flows,” says Schaffer-Smith. “Thinking about managing the floodplain is really different than thinking about managing the river, and maybe we need to be thinking about that more as a holistic system.”

Redefining Storm Recovery

In early August, NOAA forecasters announced that the agency’s updated 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook showed increased chances for an above-normal hurricane season due to the end of El Niño. Some communities have yet to fully recover from last season.

Schaffer-Smith believes that how we define ‘recovery’ has a significant impact on our future.

“I’m hopeful that North Carolina can be a proving ground for changing some of the way that traditional disaster recovery has played out because—from a policy standpoint—the current policy is that you want to get back to the condition pre-storm, which doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of creativity in thinking about how do we make the situation better in the future.”

Sunset breaking through clouds over a marshy area on the banks of the Cape Fear River.

Sometimes it can be hard to look to the future when you feel so weighed down by the past. But Schaffer-Smith suggests a lens to consider the problems at hand.

“I think the challenge is for these communities to think about what they want their childrens’ lives—if they stay in this community—to look like and what they want their day-to-day experience to be, then using that as a starting point for how you build a policy solution to achieve that goal.”

The Sustainable Rivers Program and NatureNet project are both working toward that shared goal. As a result, each of these projects are going to present us with difficult questions to consider when shaping the future of our communities and the land around them.

We need to keep thinking forward. We’re reacting to past storms, and we need to keep doing that, but we also need to be thinking ahead about the next ones that are coming, even though we don’t know when.

Director of Water Resources, North Carolina

Creating a Decision-Making Framework

Neither of these projects are going to provide hard and fast answers. Instead, they’re going to provide a framework of information for us to use in making tough decisions.

Later this year, DeMeester is holding a stakeholder workshop for the Sustainable Rivers Program with qualified experts to prepare ideal flow plans for the Cape Fear River that would promote healthy floodplains, healthy fish populations, and reduce algal blooms and improve water quality. To conclude this workshop, the same group of experts will then consolidate these three flow plans into a single plan that will harmoniously support each of these goals. The resulting plan must then be reconciled with the Corps’ own working constraints and rigorously modeled to ensure that there wouldn’t be any unintended consequences.

“I think that process will take one year minimum,” says DeMeester. “Once we have the recommendations and have modeled them, maybe it takes two years to feel comfortable with that and make sure we’ve checked in with landowners if we’re going to release water out of the dam differently, and then we do a test case.”

As for Schaffer-Smith, she considers the NatureNet project as less of a Magic 8-Ball and more of an informative tool to help guide discussions. “We’re not going to have an answer. We’re going to have some information about what these different options mean, and I think the communities need to be the driver in terms of thinking about whether they want to go or stay or what they would want to change.”

Empowering Local Communities

By providing communities with decision-making tools, the hope is that they will feel empowered to use this wealth of information in making vital choices about their future. But if we want our communities to be more flood-prepared and resilient, we need to get involved in finding creative solutions.

When asked what will aid in the project’s success, Schaffer-Smith answers, “I think that the more we can be creative, engage with local communities, and support things that will work for these communities; the more likely we are going to be to succeed.”