Learn about the water quality issues facing North Carolina and our state's plan for protecting and restoring our coastal waters
North Carolina is home to one of the largest estuaries on the Atlantic Seaboard
With over 12,000 miles of shoreline, North Carolina’s estuarine system is one of the largest on the Atlantic seaboard.
North Carolina's unique position between the South Atlantic and mid-Atlantic biogeographical regions supports a mix of northern and southern seagrass and fish species.
North Carolina's vast extent of wetlands contributes substantially to our state's biodiversity. North Carolina has 4.5 million acres of wetlands, and once supported 11 million acres of wetlands.
Currently, North Carolina is steward to one of the most productive and diverse seagrass resources on the Atlantic. Wetlands and seagrasses support almost every commercial and recreationally important fish, shellfish and crustacean species.
North Carolina's habitats and fisheries depend on clean coastal waters
North Carolina has over 2.1 million acres of coastal waters that support its habitats and fisheries. Clean water is essential for these resources to thrive and support fishery-based businesses, such as oyster farms.
Healthy habitats depend on more than clean water. North Carolina's habitats need clean water that is characteristic of the water they are adapted to. This includes things like the right mix of fresh and salt water, and how clear the water is.
Seagrasses, for example, need clear water to photosynthesize. Algae blooms and sediment pollution (which includes sand, dirt, and other particles) cloud the water and block sunlight essential for seagrasses.
Changes to the landscape and increased rainfall can bring an unnatural amount of freshwater into our estuaries.
Bacteria entering the water from sources like animal operations or leaky septic tanks can cause human illness and can make shellfish unsafe to eat, leading to shellfish closures.
North Carolina has one of the best seagrass resources on the Atlantic seaboard, but has lost approximately half of its seagrasses, and declines continue.
Just like their land-based counterparts, seagrasses need a lot of sunlight to survive.
Poor water quality leads to algae blooms and cloudy water, both of which block sunlight essential for seagrasses.
Water quality is continuing to decline. Increased rainfall from extreme climate events is bringing more pollutants into our estuaries.
Places that recently had severe algae blooms, like Albemarle Sound and the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, lost all of their seagrasses within a year.
North Carolina's landscape has changed dramatically in the last century, with major consequences for our coastal habitats and fisheries.
See how hardened landscapes increase the amount of water moving into a creek.
This 1980's aerial view of Hewletts Creek watershed shows the extent of forested cover before extensive development. From the Source.
This image from 2010 shows where forest and natural landscape was converted to impervious surface or pavement (highlighted in orange).
This graph shows that much more water entered Hewletts Creek after a rain event in 2010 than in 1981.
As wetlands and forests have been converted to pavement, rainfall that used to be absorbed by forests and wetlands can no longer be absorbed.
Known as 'stormwater', this water now quickly moves across hardened landscapes to streams, rivers and, eventually, our estuaries.
Stormwater can bring an unnatural quantity of fresh water to our estuaries, stressing fish habitats.
Stormwater also brings with it nutrients, sediments, and pathogens that it picks up along the way. This is a major source of pollution for our fishery habitats.
North Carolina's coastal water quality is getting worse.
Scientists and stakeholders in North Carolina agree that water quality continues to decline, despite significant progress made to reduce nutrient inputs. Extreme weather is bringing more pollutants into our estuaries.
Sources of human-made pollution are decreasing, such as synthetic fertilizer, thanks to the efforts of many stakeholders over the last twenty years.
Unfortunately, North Carolina has seen a significant increase in the amount of rainfall due to climate extremes.
The sheer volume of rain is bringing significantly more natural or 'organic' sources of sediments and nutrients, such as leaf litter, sand, and animal waste, into our estuaries.
Scientists report that the progress made to reduce human sources of nutrients and sediments is being overshadowed by these organic sources, which are contributing significantly to water quality problems.
It's much easier and more affordable to take action before habitats reach 'tipping points'. Other states, such as Florida, are dealing with the consequences of failing to plan to protect habitats. North Carolina can still avoid this fate.
The Indian River Lagoon in South Florida has reached a 'tipping point', kicking off a series of ecological dominos that North Carolina should guard against.
The Indian River Lagoon has seen a precipitous decline in seagrasses in the last decade as a result of poor water quality, likely resulting in a high number of manatee deaths in 2021.
Habitats can recover if the proper actions are taken. In the Chesapeake Bay and Tampa Bay, water quality protections helped to restore water quality and bring back seagrasses.
Communities and stakeholders must remain vigilant and engaged for long term success.
Few, if any, states have a comprehensive, interagency plan like the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan
The North Carolina General Assembly passed the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act in response to declining fish populations, habitat and water quality.
The legislative goal of the CHPP is “...the long-term enhancement of coastal fisheries associated with coastal habitats.”
The law specifies that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality develop the CHPP to identify threats and recommend management actions to protect and restore coastal habitats critical to NC’s coastal fishery resources.
All DEQ divisions with authority over coastal habitat and water quality management assist with drafting plans.
The CHPP must be adopted by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC), and the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC).
The 2021 Draft CHPP has been released! It will need approval from three commissions before it goes to a one-month public comment period. The commissions will tentatively vote for final adoption after public comment in November.
The 2021 plan makes recommendations on the below topics.
Submerged Aquatic Vegetation protection and restoration through water quality improvements
Wetland protection and restoration through Nature-based Solutions
Environmental rule compliance to protect coastal habitats
Wastewater infrastructure solutions for water quality improvement
Coastal habitat mapping and monitoring to assess status and trends
What's good for resiliency is good for the fishery.
Nature-based solutions, such as wetlands, provide a wide array of ecosystem services, such as wave energy dissipation, flood storage, shoreline stabilization, water filtration, carbon sequestration, pollinator habitat, and nursery grounds for commercially important fish species.
Despite their benefits, North Carolina continues to lose wetlands.
Wetlands reduce flooding because they can dramatically slow stormwater from rainfall. Some North Carolina wetlands can hold up to 330,000 gallons of water per acre per day.
In Cedar Island, NC, shorelines with wetlands had half the rate of erosion compared to unvegetated shorelines over 40 years.
Wetlands act as a 'biofilter', cleaning water of pollutants and sediments and slowly releasing clean water into our estuaries.
The 2021 CHPP update focuses on ways to restore and protect clean water resources to protect vital habitats like seagrasses using science, nature-based solutions, watershed planning, and stakeholder engagement.
The CHPP uses science to improve water quality by setting clean water goals to work towards.
Nature-based solutions like wetlands are essential because they can hold back record-breaking rain, reducing flooding and pollutants entering estuaries.
The CHPP recommends working with stakeholders, municipalities, businesses, and communities to create watershed plans that reduce flooding and pollutants using wetlands and other nature-based solutions.
By restoring and protecting wetlands, we can preserve this vital nursery and improve water quality.
With increased rainfall leading to flooding and pollutants, we need the comprehensive, stakeholder-driven approach that the CHPP offers more now than ever
We are uniquely positioned as national leaders in this space: few if any other states have a comprehensive plan like the CHPP, or the 20+ years developing and implementing strategies in the plan that prioritizes science, stakeholder input, and integration with diverse state management agencies
The CHPP is more important than ever with increasing emphasis on resiliency and how habitats like seagrass, marsh, and oyster reefs contribute to resiliency and to carbon sequestration.
The CHPP solutions do much more than protect habitat - they also provide much needed flood control and resiliency planning in the face of more extreme weather events in North Carolina.
By following the lead of other successful initiatives and with the involvement of stakeholders, the CHPP is well-positioned to protect communities and our habitats.
The North Carolina Coastal Habitat Coalition supports the 2021 Coastal Habitat Protection Plan!
The North Carolina Coastal Habitat Coalition applauds the Department of Environmental Quality and the CHPP's thoughtful recommendations to protect and restore habitats.
We are also supportive of a public/private partnership to bring together stakeholders that can begin to implement voluntary actions to improve water quality alongside state agencies.
The Coastal Habitat Coalition convened a stakeholder workgroup in the Summer of 2021 to identify voluntary actions that could be implemented immediately.
This group identified the financial challenges to reducing sediment and nutrient sources for stakeholders, municipalities, communities, business and agriculture.
All parties recognize the need to seek additional state, federal and private funding to implement the actions needed to improve our water quality.
We've seen what a group of committed individuals can do through the Oyster Steering Committee's work to restore oysters in North Carolina.
We're supportive of a similar steering committee of stakeholders to move forward water quality alongside DEQ and state agencies in North Carolina.
Submit a public comment in support of the CHPP here!
The diversity and abundance of North Carolina's habitats makes our state's fisheries some of the most productive in the United States