It’s that time of year when the winter chill might prompt stepping up the pace of a walk on the beach or choosing a heavier coat for a day on the fishing pier.

No doubt about it. Change is in the air. And there is more to it than a cold ocean breeze. It’s more a sea change in ways North Carolina’s coastal communities protect precious water resources in the face of unprecedented growth.

New state coastal stormwater rules enacted in 2008 by the N.C. General Assembly mandate steps the state’s 20 coastal counties must take to curb pollutant-laden stormwater runoff — a major contributor to water quality degradation.

The legislation replaces the rules in place for coastal North Carolina since the mid-1980s. State records show that since then, the acreage of shellfish water closures increased about 13 percent. All told, some 76,000 acres of coastal waters are permanently closed to shellfishing.

While opponents raised concerns that the new rules could stymie business expansion and development, proponents say the new law is crucial to keeping waters open to shellfishing, swimming and other recreational activities. In part, it addresses buffers, setbacks, built-upon coverage, and broadens the array of on-site stormwater control and treatment methods for new or redevelopment projects.

Jack Thigpen, North Carolina Sea Grant extension director, sees the new rules as an effort to consider environmental and economic needs in all 20 coastal counties: Beaufort, Bertie, Brunswick, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Currituck, Craven, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Pender, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington.

“Water quality is really the single most important issue for coastal North Carolina. It is essential if our communities and economy are going to prosper,” says Thigpen, who studies coastal community topics. “Our fishing families and their economic communities cannot survive without clean water. All of the finfish and shellfish depend on healthy spawning and nursery grounds — our rivers, tidal creeks, estuaries and ocean waters.”

In addition, the coastal region is an economic engine for the state’s lucrative tourist and travel industry. “Whether you come to the coast to enjoy fresh North Carolina seafood, to fish, paddle a kayak, swim, or observe wildlife and its habitat, the availability of clean water makes it happen,” Thigpen says.


Simply put, the old rules were not working and needed to be strengthened to meet their goal of protecting water quality, according to Tom Reeder, now director of the state’s Division of Water Resources. Reeder championed the new rules while heading up the Division of Water Quality’s (DWQ) Wetlands and Stormwater Management Branch.

Some allowable practices under the old rules seemed to counter much of the science that connects polluted stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces to degraded waters.

The old rules allowed up to 25 percent built-upon surfaces without structural stormwater controls in shellfish watersheds — the most sensitive waters in the state. Now, any new, low-density residential development (less than an acre) within a half-mile of shellfishing waters that has more than a 12 percent built-upon footprint must install stormwater controls — in line with research recommendations. And, stormwater must be stored and treated on site using various approved methods.

“The shellfishing industry is an important cultural and economic resource,” Reeder adds. “We see the oyster as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Eventually, the same waters closed to shellfishing could also be closed to swimming and other recreational activities. It’s a human health issue that ultimately would have a negative impact on our tourism industry.”

While provisions tighten former rules, developers will have more stormwater management options undei the new law, such as cisterns and rain barrels to collect rooftop runoff, the use of permeable pavement, rain gardens, and many on-site infiltration systems to control and treat runoff.

Water quality is not just a coastal issue, Reeder says. The majority of the state’s other 80 counties are covered under some federal or state stormwater program to control both point and nonpoint source pollution. Nonpoint source pollution emanates from a wide area rather than a single source, such as the end of a wastewater outfall.

Reeder adds, “We are confident that we have created effective, science-based stormwater management rules to protect North Carolina coastal waters.”

Some homebuilders and real estate professionals fear the changes will make coastal housing unaffordable. The state has estimated that new requirements would add between $5,000 and $7,000 to the cost of building a single home. But, the long-term cost of not enacting new measures to protect coastal ecosystems is incalculable, says Reeder.


For decades, researchers from North Carolina universities — many funded through Sea Grant projects — literally and figuratively have had the state’s coastal waters under the microscope.

The litany of scientists includes East Carolina University sociologist John Maiolo, whose research links population growth to shellfish bed closures; Duke University’s Bill Kirby-Smith, who studies stormwater-related pollution in coastal ecosystems; University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Science’s Hans Paerl, who tracks water quality in the Neuse River estuaries and Pamlico Sound; and Paerl’s UNC colleague, Charles “Pete” Peterson, a coastal ecologist and vice chairperson of the state’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC).

Peterson forged the path from lab to legislation when he drew from myriad scientific literature and state agency data to help rewrite coastal stormwater rules for the EMC in 2008. That draft became a rallying point for both proponents and opponents of stronger rules. Much of the rules proposed by the EMC became the foundation for the legislation that emerged from the General Assembly’s 2008 short session.

During weeks of hearings, legislators also learned about numerous studies from the Southeast coast that supported stronger rules, including the work of University of North Carolina Wilmington’s (UNCW) Mike Mallin, Lawrence Cahoon and Stephen Skrabal.

Mallin, a marine and estuarine ecologist and research coordinator for the Lower Cape Fear River Program and the Wilmington Watersheds Program, has been tracking how land use affects water quality in New Hanover County’s tidal creeks since 1993. Mallin’s findings demonstrate the correlation between permeable surfaces — roadways, parking lots, rooftops, walkways and driveways — to the concentration of bacteria in tidal creeks.

The creeks with the highest percentage of impervious surfaces from nearby development have the highest concentrations of bacteria — and the most shellfish closures, he found.

In the mid-1980s, only one of New Hanover’s five major tidal creeks and the headwaters of the other four were completely closed to shellfishing and swimming. Now, state data show that three of the tidal creeks are completely closed and only the mouths of the others remain open. The trend follows the increases in impervious surfaces in each of the creek watersheds. Similar patterns have been found in a host of smaller creek watersheds.

Cahoon and Skrabal say runoff also can carry sediments into receiving waters. Some sediments, especially clays, bond with pollutants such as ammonium, phosphate, metals and fecal bacteria. These “buried” microbes can survive because they are protected from the ultraviolet radiation of the sun — and have access to nutrients. Sediments can be stirred up easily in shallow creeks. And, dredging disturbs and redistributes much of the sediments and the pathogens in them.

The researchers welcome the tightening of stormwater rules as an important step toward safeguarding coastal waters and the people who use them. Ongoing research by scientists from universities and state agencies up and down the coast will play an important role in measuring the effectiveness of the new stormwater rules.


The good news is that many coastal communities are ahead of the change curve in planning, forming partnerships, engaging volunteers, and exploring innovations to protect water resources through better stormwater management practices.

In Brunswick County, Phyllis Evans and her husband Kevin Talon are part of the army of N.C. Coastal Federation (NCCF) volunteers who mobilize after rain events to sample water in creeks and streams in the Lockwood Folly River watershed. Monitoring data could be used to track the effectiveness of the new rules and other measures that target water quality issues in the area.

The ongoing monitoring program began about two years ago as part of the Lockwood Folly Roundtable — an initiative supported by the county, citizens, NCCF, the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Ecosystem Enhancement Program, North Carolina State University’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, and a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Brunswick County officials embraced the Roundtable recommendation to develop a Low Impact Development (LID) guide as part of its stormwater management program, and asked NCCF’s Lauren Kolodij to facilitate the effort.

Word spread and soon New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington officials were on board to learn more about LID. With funding from DENR’s Coastal Nonpoint Source Program, a series of workshops drew city and county staff members, planners, engineers, commercial and residential developers, real estate professionals, as well as other interested citizens.

A year later, Brunswick, New Hanover and Wilmington officials each adopted a Low Impact Development Guidance Manual. LID gives developers flexibility in managing stormwater. Instead of the conventional curb-and-gutter and retention pond methods, developers may incorporate a variety of LID techniques including vegetative swales, cisterns, bioretention, and permeable pavement. The goal is to contain and treat stormwater on site and minimize potential harm to receiving waters.

Along with the manual, developers can use LID-EZ to calculate the stormwater capacity of each technique to determine if state, federal and local regulations are met.

LID-EZ, a DWQ- approved spreadsheet, provides a standardized and simplified way for state and local regulators to assess LID permit applications, Kolodij points out.

The growing interest in LID is timely because it can be an important tool for implementing new coastal stormwater rules, Kolodij says. Carteret and Onslow counties, as well as Nags Head, Manteo, Kitty Hawk, Cedar Point, Cape Carteret and Atlantic Beach, are looking to incorporate LID into their stormwater management strategies. Commercial developers also have expressed interest in implementing LID for future projects.

Meanwhile, NC State’s Stormwater Group is working with DWQ to develop statewide LID guidelines. Bill Hunt, who heads up the group, says that implementing LID techniques requires a fair amount of time invested in planning and design, attention to the natural topography, soils and hydrology of a site, choosing the right LID tools, and on-site supervision.

“It’s a new learning curve,” Hunt says. But done right, large-scale LID projects can make a large-scale difference in protecting watersheds.

According to Gloria Putnam, Sea Grant’s water quality planning specialist, opportunities to learn about LID and other sustainable development approaches are becoming more available to all sectors of our communities, from engineers and developers to homeowners and government officials.

For local elected and appointed officials, Sea Grant and partners offer a one-day course to improve their understanding of the linkages between land use and water quality and how to integrate environmental protection and restoration into public policies and programs.

“One of the biggest benefits of implementing a low impact development strategy is that existing environmental conditions are considered in the design process to take advantage of protection that can be naturally provided by the land. For example, mature tree stands, wetlands, and soils with high infiltration rates are all important areas to consider protecting for stormwater control and treatment,” Putnam explains.

“In addition to reducing the need for installing and maintaining engineered stormwater infrastructure, these areas contribute to the ‘green infrastructure’ of our communities – and add economic, aesthetic and environmental value.”


Anne Deaton, who oversees the state’s Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP) for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, hails the new coastal stormwater rules as “what needs to be done to protect threatened coastal habitat. And certainly, pollution and sediments in stormwater runoff are major threats to water quality.”

To Dave Beresoff, a commercial fisher and member of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, the new rules may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for water quality.

“Anything we can do to stop the runoff will help — buffers, rerouting ditches, reducing sediment. When you fish every day, you know what a major storm event means in terms of runoff,” he adds. “Those of us who fish for a living need to be vigilant and support whatever it takes to protect our estuaries.”

Charlie Schoonmaker, who operates Back Bay Fishing Charters out of Carolina Beach, has seen the aftermath of heavy rains on inland waters — street trash and petroleum slicks washed from stormwater drains, sediment from ditch lines, and stormwater washing over lawns and golf courses.

A retired educator and avid naturalist, Schoonmaker has been plying the coastal waters for many years both for pleasure and for a living. Families who board his boat during the busy summer learn about baiting hooks and catching fish — as well as about reading tides, the importance of marsh grass, water birds, sea turtles and dolphins.

He welcomes the new coastal stormwater rules as a way to curb the further degradation of the waters he loves. Hopefully, Schoonmaker adds, the new rules will prevent our coastal waters from being “loved to death.”

To view the complete coastal stormwater rules for residential and commercial development, go to the DWQ Web site.

This article was published in the Winter 2009 issue of Coastwatch.

For contact information and reprint requests, visit