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    North Carolina Coastal Resilience Initiative

    September 10, 2019

    It should come as no surprise that the coastal communities of North Carolina are susceptible to sea-level rise. The most dramatic effects are seen during and after storm events—uncommon but they do occur.  But the slow yet steady encroachment of water on the ocean and sound sides are also very much a part of the equation.

    There is no doubt that we’re seeing some of the effects of that slow intrusion. It is not something that is apparent on a day to day, week to weak or maybe even year to year basis, but there is no doubt that the steady incremental rise in water levels is being seen in the marshes, wetlands and along the coast.

    Moor Shore Road Aerial View

    But this story is not about the inevitability of sea-level rise; rather it’s about what the state of North Carolina is doing through its Coastal Resilience Initiative to mitigate those effects.

    The roots of the CRI were created last year in Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 80. The Executive Order did not create the initiative. What it did do, though, was to set specific environmental goals and instructed state agencies to work together to achieve them.

    The executive order also created a council of all of the state agencies with the Department of Environmental Quality as the chair, instructing the council to “…support communities that are interested in assessing risks and vulnerabilities to natural and built infrastructure and in developing community-level adaption and resiliency plans.”

    Recognizing that sea-level rise (SLR) was a common threat throughout coastal North Carolina, local communities have responded.

    We saw some of the evidence of that back in May when the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, Michael Regan, invited coastal community leaders to a forum discussion in May in Manteo. Chaired by Dare County Chair Bob Woodard and Nags Head Mayor Ben Cahoon, mayors from Topsail Beach, Plymouth and Elizabeth City among others were on hand.

    The community leaders at the meeting represented a broad spectrum of political thought and both major parties, something Secretary Regan noted in his remarks.

    “We’re proving from the makeup of the folks the room… this is not a partisan issue,” he said. “We have Democrats, Republicans and independents all coming together, united to support the protection of our coastal resources and our economy. This is something that is rare in public discourse.”

    pine island audubon sanctuary aerial view
    Aerial View of the Audubon Sanctuary in Pine Island Corolla

    That same sense of cooperation was seen at the Audubon Pine Island Sanctuary in June when Secretary Regan, State Senator Bob Steinburg, State Representative Bobby Hanig and Andrew Hutson, Executive Director of Audubon North Carolina gathered, ostensibly to raise two purple martin houses. In fact, the day was a discussion of the impacts of SLR on the soundside and steps that could be taken to preserve the shoreline and infrastructure.

    A common thread throughout the day was that causes for SLR could be debated, but evidence of its effects were so compelling that it could not be ignored.

    The Pine Island sanctuary is an example of how North Carolina is working with stakeholders and communities to offset those effects.

    Just to the south of the Pine Island docks, the marsh is rapidly retreating. To combat that, a partnership between the state and Audubon has taken shape to create a living shoreline. It will be one of the larger living shoreline projects in the state.

    Pine Island Hunt Club
    Pine Island docks and the marshes

    Not just there but in other locations evidence of the cooperative efforts to combat SLR in the sounds is becoming more frequent.

    Some of that cooperative effort may be a result of a directive from Governor Cooper that agencies were to work cooperatively on coastal resilience.

    Although not stated as part of the initiative, it is interesting that for the first time in its history NCDOT helped to fund a living shoreline project. That was the Moor Shore Road living shoreline that began construction last November and just wrapped up with the final planting of marsh grass.

    Moor Shore Road Kitty Hawk Living Shoreline
    Moor Shore Road in Kitty Hawk and the Living Shoreline Project

    Although not the major source of funds for the project, it seems evident that NCDOT, with a few thousand miles of roads at risk from SLR, would be interested in a living shoreline as a tool to protect their infrastructure.

    The North Carolina Coastal Resilience Initiative is still in its earlier stages, but from what we have seen so far, it appears to be an initiative that is gaining traction.