Beaufort And Scientists Partner For Stormwater Study

May 22, 2017

Wild horses at Middle Marsh, part of the Rachel Carson Reserve.
Credit Emily Woodward, UNC Institute of Marine Sciences

The coastal town of Beaufort is part of collaborative research project with marine scientists to study the impact of stormwater on the Rachel Carson Reserve.

Beaufort is the quintessential small seaside town, with boutiques, award winning seafood restaurants and maritime recreation.  Its ties to Blackbeard and wild horses that roam Carrot Island make Beaufort memorable, earning the title “America’s Favorite Town” by Travel and Leisure Magazine.  Beaufort has its challenges though.  One struggle that town officials and marine scientists are addressing, the occasional flooding that occurs during heavy rain events and what happens when stormwater flows from Front Street, to Taylor's Creek.

“And the water that it flows into is a big recreational resource and a big fishing resource, so the effects matter to a lot of people right away.”

Dr. Michael Piehler is a professor at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City. 

“So our project is focused on storm water and storm water carries with it a bunch of different things including human pathogens, including nutrients, including sediments, and all those things have different environmental effects.”

Beaufort has been proactive in addressing stormwater issues in recent years, including development of a watershed planning process and cleaning out and maintaining drainage ditches.  Planning director Kyle Garner says the town also adopted a stormwater fund that puts money into improving and maintaining existing infrastructure as well as creating new rain gardens and bioretention areas to help deal with runoff.

“Not everything that drops here goes into the water bodies.  Some of it is absorbed back into the ground.  And that is why we’ve encouraged more landscaping facilities.”

Dr. Rachel Noble of the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, examines water samples in her lab taken from a beach near Morehead City.
Credit UNC

Stormwater that discharges into coastal waters can have a negative impact to human and ecosystem health.  Perhaps you’ve seen the rainbow colored oil sheen on the road after it rains?  This, along with other contaminants like lawn fertilizers or even waste from leaky septic tanks can end up draining into nearby waterways.  Professor with the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences Dr. Rachel Noble says a number of factors, such as aging infrastructure and development make Beaufort susceptible to stormwater entering Taylor’s Creek, which runs parallel to the waterfront.

“We have the unpredictability of storms.  In the meantime, we have periods of time that we have higher than normal tides.  So when we have really high tides, all the people who live along here in Beaufort and along Front Street, they know that they see floods.  Because if it’s raining and the water used to flow out of the streets into the ocean, but now the ocean is essentially pushing back, there’s nowhere for the stormwater to go.  And there are periods of time in the streets of Beaufort that we can have in certain areas, a foot, two feet and even more of water.”

The height of the ground water table also has an impact on how quickly stormwater is absorbed.  Dr. Noble says during periods of heavy rains, less space is available for stormwater to soak into the ground.

“So we’re not in a drought period right now, we’re kind of in the opposite, we’re in a high ground water table right now. So there’s very little space for that ground water to infiltrate.”

Even though Beaufort has focused on implementing stormwater mitigation strategies, planning director Garner admits more work needs to be done.  The town is participating in a three year study in partnership with marine scientists to examine how storm water flowing from Beaufort impacts the Rachel Carson Reserve, which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal and Horse Island.  Dr. Nobel is the lead investigator for the collaborative project that involves multiple marine science organizations, including the Rachel Carson Reserve, North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences.

“We will characterize the water quality particularly during storms coming from the town and that water basically moves past the Rachel Carson Reserve which people swim, fish, they recreate, they paddleboard, there’s kayaking.  So people are in the water and they want it to be clean.”

To better understand how stormwater affects estuarine systems, six sampling locations have been set up at known sources of major stormwater discharge, along Front Street in Beaufort.  Two of which are at the intersections of Orange Street and Gordon Street.

Sunset soundside at Core Banks
Credit E. Woodward/UNC Institute of Marine Sciences

“And those stormwater outfalls or those pipes are those that are immediately facing the reserve.  So they are the most proximal to the reserve.”

Another site which serves as the control is located farther away from Beaufort. Dr. Piehler says they’re also employing new water sampling technology, a free floating device called a hydrosphere that moves with the water currents.

“Stormwater is often assessed at a single point; so when it comes out of a stream or when it goes into an estuary.  But knowing what’s going on at that point, while valuable and a lot better than nothing, is not as valuable how the effects change as it travels through the body of water.”

One of the aims with the project is to create predictive models for shellfish and recreational waters in the Reserve. Dr. Piehler says this information will also be useful to officials who make the determination to close waters to swimming or shell fishing because of contamination. 

“Is it safe for people to swim?  Is it safe for people to take oysters?  Hopefully this project will contribute a great deal to that directly.  And it also will contribute to our understanding of how not only human health but also environmental health is effected by stormwater.”

In addition to identifying stormwater problems for the town, Dr. Noble says they will also make recommendations on how to address the issues.

“Of the problems that exist in the town of Beaufort, like flooding, like standing water, like contamination in the streets or contamination in certain areas, we will help them prioritize what those problems are so that they can begin to tackle the most important ones.  If we don’t prioritize them, than any town is left with a litany of problems and they don’t really know how to select one over the other in terms of importance.”

This guidance is something planning director for Beaufort Kyle Garner says is helpful, due to the town’s unique stormwater challenges.

“They bring some expertise to the table that we don’t have in improving the water quality.  But by doing so, they also bring some expertise in the engineering on how we may be able to work on some areas and retrofit them.”

Beaufort isn’t the only coastal town that’s focused on better managing wastewater.  There are other projects in Dare County, Atlantic Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington, all areas that are experiencing growth.  Coastal researchers agree, the collaborative stormwater project in Beaufort serves as a model to other municipalities to help balance development with conservation.  Once again, Dr. Piehler.

Dr. Michael Piehler filtering water samples in his lab
Credit UNC Research

“It’s a big question these days, looking at urban coasts, because so many people want to live near the coast. And if your place is like we are here, and we have wonderful water quality and lots of intact habitats, we think that it’s worth the effort to balance the two.”

Dr. Piehler expects to have quantifiable results from the monitoring sites by the end of summer.  And by year’s end, they’ll have a better sense of how stormwater impacts the coastal reserve and the magnitude of any potential human health risk.   Scientists will continue to collect and monitor the seven testing sites for the next year.