A wavering line of children — mucking through a path in the marsh to collect critters for a lesson in marine biology — mirrors nearby reeds swaying in the wind. The 9-foot stalks of marsh grass are vibrant with rustled chatter. They form a coastal jungle around the young group.

The group’s leader, Pat Donovan-Potts, is a marine biologist, teacher, role model and friend.

Donovan-Potts makes sure the children do not stray from the well-beaten path. She aims to teach, while ultimately conserving the resources that aid the learning process — resources such as the swaying grass, the mucky wetland bottom, the darting fish and the quietly lapping waters of Wilson Bay.


It wasn’t long ago that Jacksonville’s faulty wastewater treatment plant poured layers of sewage sludge over all life in the 126-acre bottom of Wilson Bay. Built in the 1940s, the treatment plant was unable to keep up with population growth and ran out of compliance.

The plant’s 27-foot biotower — designed to remove bacteria, nutrients and chemicals from the city’s sewage sludge — was an engineering failure.

As a result, the nutrients, chemicals and bacteria — particularly fecal coliform — were not adequately removed from the sludge. Fecal coliform are bacteria found living in colonies within the guts of warm-blooded animals, where the bacteria aid in digestion.

Partially treated at best, the sludge was then discharged into the bay.

Shellfish sanitation officials in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) closed the bay to recreational and commercial uses for 10 years because of high levels of fecal coliform.

When a water body contains high fecal levels, humans should avoid direct contact. Fecal bacteria are not only harmful disease carriers, but also are an indication of other pathogenic bacteria that render swimming, boating and harvesting of fish or shellfish a danger to public health.

Excessive nutrient loading also triggered eutrophication, the process where excessive aquatic plant growth depletes dissolved oxygen in the water. If this natural process is accelerated by human activity, it may lead to algal blooms, low dissolved oxygen levels and fish kills.

In addition to the treatment plant, various other sources may have contributed to the bay’s degraded water quality, including flooded hog farms, trash dumped along the shoreline and pollutants carried in stormwater.

The New River, which feeds Wilson Bay, was deemed one of the worst rivers in the state by the N.C. Division of Water Quality (DWQ) in 1991. The bay alone was described as “ecologically dead” and “nutrient sensitive.”


In the early 1990s, the Jacksonville City Council decided to upgrade to a new land application plant built farther inland. This waste treatment plant, one of three in the U.S., cost $50 million to build and irrigates 6,300 acres of forested pine plantation.

The old treatment plant officially closed in March 1998. With its closing, “The people wanted to see an effective reclaimed use of the riverfront and river,” says Glenn Hargett, Jacksonville community affairs director.

“You don’t hear local government use the words ‘moral responsibility’ very often. There was a clear public will to reclaim the river, and the city felt a moral responsibility to clean up Wilson Bay.”

A series of community summits drew more than 1,000 people looking for ways to revive the bay. The city consulted Jay Levine, a researcher with North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He saw potential in the dilapidated buildings and wastewater tanks.

“Between the tanks and the large biotower, there were the makings for a huge aquarium,” says Levine. Also, the industrial features of the treatment plant face a magnificent view of the bay.

Levine’s idea quickly took root — and continues to grow into the educational center named Sturgeon City.

Eventually, the converted wastewater facility will be used to raise short-nosed sturgeon that could be released into the bay. The biotower will treat the fish waste. And the huge wastewater tanks will be divided into smaller viewing tanks.

Levine’s early vision for Sturgeon City was “to fill the area with yellow school buses.” But two obstacles were apparent: the stench-filled bay and the neglected area surrounding it.

The Wilson Bay Initiative (WBI) began as a comprehensive proposal submitted in 1997 by Levine, Donovan-Potts and the City of Jacksonville to the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF).

The proposal included stormwater management and efforts “to clean up the bay and upper portions of the river through a new process called bioremediation — utilizing shellfish to filter water of toxicities and organics,” says Donovan-Potts.

Donovan-Potts began collecting baseline data for the project in 1997. CWMTF awarded a $572,000 grant to WBI in 1999.


In addition to the bacteria and pollutants in the bay, other potential problems had to be defined before Donovan-Potts could formulate a plan of action to revive the bay.

For instance, no dissolved oxygen was found within Wilson Bay. A healthy bay requires 5 mg or more per liter.

Also, rather than an aerobic sand habitat bubbling with life, a soft anaerobic mud — largely composed of sludge — blanketed the bay bottom. In fact, the accumulation created an 8-foot wall between the bay and the deeper channel. The wall pushed the natural flow of the water away from the bay, decreasing the circulation of water and oxygen.

To make matters worse, freshwater intrusion from stormwater events caused salinity levels to drop. In an estuarine ecosystem, saltwater is key to survival.

With such poor conditions, the diversified bay-bottom organisms that should have been present — clams, oysters, crabs, shrimp and worms — had died off long ago.

And without bottom life, fish can’t survive. “We didn’t have a diverse finfish community because there was nothing to feed on,” Donovan-Potts explains.

These factors weighed so heavily on the bay’s ecology that NC State researchers predicted and extremely slow recovery — one that could take decades.


The initiative to counteract the contamination in the bay began with millions of innovative solutions — oysters.

Oysters possess amazing filtering capacities, as one adult oyster can filter approximately 10 gallons of water over 24 hours, according to Donovan-Potts. And because the bay contains 101 usable acres of water, the amount of oysters needed to filter the entire bay would have to be substantial.

In this case, three million oysters were placed within the bay over a four-year period. That adds up to at least 30 million gallons of water being filtered each day.

The main concern was to filter the immediate danger of E. coli and other bacteria from the bay. There also was a high incidence of petroleum byproducts — carcinogens that pose dangers from long-term exposure.

Thousands of ribbed mussels and clams were placed among the oysters because each of these shellfish targets a different food source. Oysters feed on heavy organics and contaminants. Ribbed mussels eat phytoplankton. Clams feed on bacteria.

Because “oysters have the greater filtering capabilities,” they were used the most, according to Donovan-Potts.

Valued for research purposes only, the oysters cannot be eaten and may be contaminated with the same pollutants they filter.

Juvenile oysters, known as spat, were placed throughout the water column of the bay in mesh bags. Spat start at 20 mm and can grow to 120 mm. And, the tiny oysters are cheap — just $18 per thousand.

Reviving the bay also required boosting oxygen levels. Five aerating devices were placed in the bay to pull oxygenated water from the surface and force it towards the oxygen-depleted bay bottom. The hope is to pull flow in from the New River and restore the natural hydrology of the bay.

Once the aerators no longer are needed in Wilson Bay, they will be moved to other restoration projects.

Meanwhile, five hydrolabs in Wilson Bay monitor water quality every 15 minutes.
The oysters are monitored from 15 study areas where samples are collected, analyzed and replaced by Jacksonville staff, students and volunteers.

The project was well documented and can be duplicated in any municipality, says Donovan-Potts.


Expectations at the beginning were modest. “The elected officials thought this was a wonderful way to clean up the bay. The scientists told us that this would jump-start the process,” says Hargett. “Both scientists and elected officials were pleasantly surprised that there were some successes as soon as there were.”

Successes included return of migrating birds, marsh crabs, blue crabs and various species of fish.

“The flounder have come back. We’ve been catching croaker, spot, mullet, menhaden,” says Tami Dubois, water quality technician for the City of Jacksonville.

Since the closing of the wastewater treatment plant, implementation of the bivalve
planting, and initiation of stormwater management measures, the bay’s water quality has rebounded, according to a CWMTF report. Hydrocarbons in sediments decreased nearly 70 percent, total nitrogen has been reduced, and fecal coliform levels have been significantly reduced.

Donovan-Potts says that the project also succeeded in restoring dissolved oxygen levels in Wilson Bay from zero to near normal levels.

As a result, the WBI has maintained a bottom community since Spring 2001 and has achieved a higher diversity of fish and waterfowl.

“We reopened the river and the bay to recreational and commercial uses in 2001 — what was closed for 10 years we reopened in two,” she says.

The synergy of the Wilson Bay project has attracted about $6 million dollars in grants from various sources.

Both Hargett and Donovan-Potts attest that much of the overwhelming response reflected in funding, community participation and local media attention can be attributed to the undeniable success of the project.

However, before there were successes with WBI, the city and its many partners took a science-based leap of faith. “You have to believe in the possibility,” says Donovan-Potts.

An extra $4.2 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will help keep the bay clean in the future by focusing on wetland restoration and stormwater management in the area.

“We’re addressing stormwater runoff from all of the neighborhoods that border Wilson Bay and this portion of the river,” says Donovan-Potts. Twenty-seven projects in these neighborhoods will filter, reroute and change stormwater flow through use of bioswales, rain gardens and other options to filter the water before it makes its way to the bay or river.

Donovan-Potts was hired as the field coordinator for the Jacksonville water quality initiative along with technician Dubois. Their duties are ever increasing as the WBI continues to grow and spawn new projects.

“The lessons learned in Wilson Bay’s rapid recovery should encourage restoration
projects around the state,” adds North Carolina Sea Grant Director Ronald Hodson.


Sturgeons are the ghosts of Wilson Bay. Once swimming right up to the shore to feed, sturgeons now are nonexistent in the New River and endangered throughout their range.

“Sturgeons are indigenous to the river, and we’d like to see them return,” says Donovan-Potts. However, because this species is endangered, a full return is unlikely, she adds.

But it’s not just about the symbolic sturgeon. Donovan-Potts hopes that, if anything, her students will take home the message that “with privilege comes responsibility.”

This sense of stewardship is encouraged after school, on weekends and over summer through an array of environmental educational programs — Wilson Bay Keepers, Science Explorers and seven Sturgeon City Institutes. Students gain hands-on experience through activities, ranging from wetlands restoration to water quality monitoring and even leadership development. In time, many become volunteer teachers.

Kira Alsop, an eighth grader recruited from Jacksonville Commons Middle School, is a regular at Sturgeon City.

Sitting in the lab at Sturgeon City, holding an oyster in one hand and a permanent marker in the other, Alsop pauses for a moment to explain her task. “We check for mortality, growth and whether or not they’ve reproduced.” She marks the oysters by number in order to keep record of the oysters in her measuring sample.

Alsop’s partner for the day, Stephen Clark, an eighth grader from New Bridge Middle School, chimes in to explain the process. “Every site has a different set of oysters with the same numbering system and the same numbers in the bags. We clean, dry, take measurements, renumber, and put them back in the bay.”

Both students enjoy different aspects of the program, from working in the wetlands to studying hydrolabs, which are little labs in a tube.

The combined response from students, grant institutions, researchers and volunteers in the community supports Levine’s philosophy: “It’s possible to pursue both economic development and environmental stewardship.”

Thus, designs for Sturgeon City will reflect that industry and nature can coexist. “We are going to leave the industrial look to the place as a constant reminder to not let history repeat itself,” Donovan-Potts explains.

A butterfly garden, outdoor amphitheater, gazebo-style picnic area, playground and nature walk are just a few ideas for the facility.

When Wilson Bay reaches full recovery and Sturgeon City grows within a watchful eye of the reborn bay, it is hoped that there will be a constant stream of people of all ages walking through the center eager to learn.

They will walk from building to building, hushed by tanks flowing with sharks, skates, rays and sturgeon. Engaged and challenged by educators, they will learn the history of Sturgeon City and Wilson Bay.

Get Informed to Get Involved

— To learn more about Wilson Bay, visit the Web at
— To volunteer or enroll in a Sturgeon City Institute this summer, call Jeanne Stanley at 910/938-6452.
— To learn more about oysters, order Sea Grant’s new DVD: The Amazing Oyster: A Keystone Species for the Health of Our Coast. Call 919/515-9101.

This article was published in the High Season 2004 issue of Coastwatch.

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