Photo taken from the banks of the Cape Fear River near the Memorial Bridge that crosses the river between New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Photo taken from the banks of the Cape Fear River near the Memorial Bridge that crosses the river between New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Photo credit: Zach Rudisin, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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By Greg Barnes 

An impaired 15-mile stretch of the lower Cape Fear River below Wilmington will no longer be classified as swamp water.

The state Environmental Management Commission on Thursday granted a petition filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center — on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance and Cape Fear River Watch — to scrap the four-year-old swamp water designation.

After discussing the matter for about an hour, the commission also directed the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop a management strategy for the lower Cape Fear, which has been listed as impaired since 1998, largely because of low dissolved oxygen levels.

The stretch of river — from Toomer’s Creek to near Lilliput Creek and Snow’s Cut about 15 miles below Wilmington — is a primary nursery area that provides critical habitat for endangered Atlantic sturgeon.

Environmentalists say water quality in the stretch has continued to degrade since the 1998 impairment listing. Brooks Rainey Pearson, a staff attorney for the SELC, told commissioners that the listing required the preparation of a total maximum daily load that would identify pollution reductions needed to achieve water quality standards, but it was never done.

Environmentalists view the commission’s decision to repeal the swamp water designation as a victory that they hope will lead to stricter pollution regulations for the lower Cape Fear. The river flows through the heart of nutrient-rich hog country and is considered the state’s largest and most industrialized watershed.

“Logic and law beat industry pressure today,” Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said in a statement after the commission meeting. “This decision should begin the process of imposing pollution limits on the industrial animal operations choking our river.”

The environmental groups that filed the petition say the reclassification to swamp water was made in 2015 despite objections from them, academic experts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wilmington’s mayor and other city officials also objected to the designation, partly because of tourism concerns.

The Cape Fear River basin, the state’s largest river basin, extends from near Greensboro and High Point in the Piedmont to the Wilmington area on the coast. The area includes all or part of 27 counties. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Lower Cape Fear River Program, made up of governments, college professors, industry and the public, asked for the reclassification to swamp water in 2014. The organization claimed in its request that the reclassification was warranted because lower dissolved oxygen levels in the stretch occur naturally.

In the petition, environmentalists argue that the reclassification shifted the blame for the impaired conditions from “historical polluters” in the watershed, including swine and poultry farms, to natural causes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected the swamp water designation a year ago this month, saying that the lower Cape Fear is not slow moving and that the state failed to consider whether its water quality could be improved.

That left the Environmental Management Commission with little choice but to repeal the swamp water designation.

But commission members, some of whom have grappled with the issue for years, were divided on whether DEQ should start the rule-making process to improve water quality in the stretch of river, a process that regulators said could take years.

In the end, they voted unanimously to direct DEQ to develop a management strategy for the lower Cape Fear.

Correction: This story originally stated the lower Cape Fear River provides critical habitat for endangered Atlantic salmon.

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com