Beaufort County’s gold mine of water
The Pamlico River may be a victim of the drought of 2007. While much of the state is under some form of restricted water use, Beaufort County has not followed. While drinking water is plentiful here, reduced stream flows may be degrading the river.
Over the past year, exceptionally dry conditions have seized much of the state of North Carolina. In early September, Gov. Michael Easley issued an urgent appeal for voluntary water restriction. By mid-September most of the population was living with mandatory water restrictions with stiff penalties for violators. The United States Geological Service classifies Beaufort County’s condition as “severe drought”.
Curiously, there is little worry in the town of Washington. “We’re not very concerned about it here” reported Paul Spruill, Beaufort County manager. Beaufort County’s water is supplied from wells drilled 400 feet deep into an underground flow of water known as the Castle Hayne aquifer.
Dr. Richard Spruill is an associate professor in the Department of Geologic Sciences at East Carolina University. Dr. Spruill is an expert in hydrology, a specialty that studies water sources like petroleum geologists study oil deposits.
The capacity of the Castle Hayne has been recognized by the N.C. Department of Water Resources. As a result, this aquifer is exempt from progressively restrictive regulations placed on similar water sources elsewhere in the state.
There is plenty of water for Beaufort County residents.
Heather Jacobs is the “Riverkeeper” for the Tar Pamlico Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to protection of The River. Jacobs has noticed several disturbing changes in the River that seem to be the result of the water shortage.
Increased amounts of nutrients lead to increased growth of aquatic plants and the reduction of oxygen levels important for fish and other river creatures. The U.S. Geological Service reported recently that stream flows in the Tar River at Tarboro are the lowest in 110 years of record keeping.
Large fish kills have been reported involving several species of freshwater fish. An extensive kill of bass, perch, croaker, menhaden and catfish near Blount’s Bay has been attributed to low levels of dissolved oxygen and elevated levels of salt. Large fish kills are the result of exceptional local conditions, but they could become commonplace if dry conditions worsen.
Sarah Jameson, a forecaster at the Newport office of the National Weather Service, relates that after a deficit of rainfall for Beaufort County of 50 to 70 percent of normal, the outlook for making up the shortage is poor. “Warm and dry” is the official prediction for the next 16 months made by climatologists who forecast long term weather trends.
The depth of the river seems unaffected by the decreased water flows. Aubrey Moore, dockmaster, at the Washington Yacht and Country Club, explains: “Whenever we have less flow upriver the water from the sound comes up and fills in.”
He concedes that the water is saltier. Moore complained that they are having more problems with barnacles than in most years. There are no problems with depth reported by Dave Norwood at the Carolina Winds Yachting Center.
At the automated monitor close to the 17th Street bridge salt levels are four times normal. Another measure there suggests a decline in water quality as drought conditions persist. Tracy Warren of Warren Sports headquarters in town reports that the fishing is good. Doug Mumford of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries indicates that with the intrusion of salt water into the Pamlico River recreational fishermen see a greater variety of fish that live in salt water.
At the N.C. Extension Service in Washington, Galen Ambrose stated: “We’re having the second most productive year in corn acreage production ever.” Other crops seem to be doing as well.” With prices on agricultural products firming most farmers are doing well.
Beaufort County residents are quite fortunate. The plentiful and stable water supply provided by the Castle Hayne aquifer has made this area relatively immune to shortages of rain that have devastated some areas in western North Carolina.
Does the gold mine of water that is the Castle Hayne allow most in Beaufort County to be unconcerned about the effects on the river?
Heather Jacobs suggests that we have repeatedly learned over the past century that treating resources as limitless and inexhaustible is asking for trouble.
The Riverkeeper believes: “It is past time for municipalities and county governments across the entire Tar-Pamlico watershed to come together and access the finite water supply that is available. We should not outgrow our local resources especially when it comes to water.”