Drainage issues continue around Pocosin Lakes

Published 7:04 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BELHAVEN — In the low-lying, flat areas of Beaufort and Hyde counties, flooding is not uncommon, and to lessen the negative effects of it on farmland, drainage systems are imperative.

But during wet weather, when heavy rains dump water on the land surrounding the Pocosin Lakes refuge, the already-saturated soil surface is practically impermeable and sends substantial runoff into the drainage system, overwhelming it at times.

Recently, residents in the two counties and surrounding areas have noticed problems with proper drainage and have expressed concerns about how the issues are handled by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mike Godley, president of Beaufort County Farm Bureau, said many people are criticizing the USFWS policy to hold the water of the Pungo unit of the Pocosin Lakes refuge to the soil surface.

He said there were concerns about this policy because of it overwhelming the drainage system, as the subsequent runoff and backed-up draining leaves surrounding farmland wet and unusable at times. Godley likened the experience to running water into a bathtub already full to the rim.

The issue was discussed Feb. 11 at the Belhaven meeting of the Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission, which drew a crowd of more than 175 people, including representatives from NCDOT, North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation Commission, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the USFWS.

The Study Commission is a function of the state General Assembly and holds its meetings in different areas, but since Sen. Bill Cook was presiding over the meeting, the group selected the Wilkinson Center.

“That water has no place to stay. It has to go and it goes into the drainage system, and it’s all going at once,” Godley said. “That’s a problem for the landowners.”

He said overly saturated soil could stall crop growth and make the use of farm machinery difficult.

“At first blush, you’d say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’” Godley said. “The problem comes in when it rains, when there is a significant rain.”

The USFWS has a reason for their drainage policy, however, as drained soil catches fire more easily during a wildfire, according to the USFWS website. A wet soil also supports the wildlife around Pocosin Lakes.

“Drained soil will not support the healthy hydrophytic plant communities typical of saturated organic soils or the wildlife populations that have evolved in those communities,” the website stated.

At the Belhaven meeting, USFWS representatives could give no definitive answers to those attending, although it was a step in the right direction to have the ear of the officials, he said.

“The response of the Fish and Wildlife representatives were to take questions and concerns of the Commission and the public with a promise to respond to them later,” Godley said.

“It was outstanding to see the great turnout of local farmers at the meeting. Drainage is one the most vital and complex issues facing our farmers in eastern North Carolina. Since the meeting, we have followed-up with a number of questions and concerns for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in regards to the management of wildlife refuges in the area, particularly the Pocosin Lakes refuge, and drainage issues affecting farmland in the surrounding area,” Cook wrote in a statement. “We need to continue to help our state’s No. 1 industry (agriculture) to spur job creation and economic growth, and eliminate unnecessary red tape that chokes off economic growth.”

The residents who attended the meeting will continue to cope with the drainage system, but are hopeful the meeting sparked a conversation to make some changes.

“It’s not just important for farmers because probably most of the area east of (N.C.) Highway 32 would hardly be inhabitable at all without some kind of enhanced drainage,” Godley said. “I think it was also more of a matter for the local people to provide input to raise their concerns.”