Fearrington resident Dianne Birch has walked along a creek near her house for years. Over the past one to two years in particular, she and her walking-mate Ellen Roberts have noticed the creek’s banks eroding quickly. The waters have become murky with runoff and silt, she said, and trees have begun to fall because their roots have no support system. She no longer sees many of the animals they are accustomed to seeing, she said.
Dianne asked us to look into who is monitoring the erosion and water quality of these waterways, and if the clear-cutting of trees for the Briar Chapel construction sites off route 15-501 have anything to do with these ecological changes.
Seeing for myself
I met with Ellen and walked the trail so I could see the changes she and Dianne described. The creek is called Creekwood, and the pond is called Beechmast Pond.
As we walked, I saw trees with exposed roots. I also saw parts of the embankment where the topsoil was missing. As we passed one of the largest storm drains on the walk, I could see the water turn from clear to murky, and the water volume increase—indicators of erosion and pollutants in the water. Erosion degrades water quality, which can kill off plants and animals. Erosion also strips away the protective layer of topsoil that trees and other plants need to cover their roots.
I made calls to the county, to the state and to the development company in charge of the Briar Chapel construction site, Newland Industries, to try and understand what might be causing the erosion. Here’s what I learned.
Two years of clean inspection reports
Officials at both the state and county level said that the Briar Chapel development was doing what the law requires to mitigate construction site sediment from running off into the creek and pond. But they also said that county regulations have become stricter since the Briar Chapel development was approved, and that the regulations may need to change even more.
The Briar Chapel construction site is using a basin pond to catch storm runoff, rocks to slow water flow and silt fencing to trap particulates as water exits the site. Those materials adhere to state regulation requirements for keeping sediment from flowing in to Beechmast Pond, county officials said.
Chatham County officials have conducted regular inspections of the Briar Chapel construction site over the past two years. A 2016 report said that while there was sediment in the stream, they found no violations in Briar Chapel’s sediment barriers. Later reports called for various corrective actions—most frequently providing adequate ground cover for exposed soils—but no violations have been issued against the construction project.
Emily Sutton, who monitors Chatham County waterways for the Haw River Assembly, an environmental advocacy group, said she joined the government officials for that 2016 inspection. She said that while sediment isn’t coming from the Briar Chapel construction site, she believes there is higher water volume in the creek that is caused by clear cutting from the construction site as well as more paved surfaces in the area.
“The problem is that the volume of water going into that stream is what’s cutting the stream banks,” Sutton said. “So even though it’s a direct result of that development and the lack of trees, because there’s no sediment leaving the [construction] site, there’s no violation.”
Rachael Thorn, director of Chatham County’s Watershed Protection Program, pointed out that other areas upstream of Beechmast Pond could also be contributing to the pond’s degradation, and that Briar Chapel’s construction site should not be named as the only source of changes to the creek and pond.
Garretson Brown, the construction manager at Newland Communities who received the 2016 inspection report from the county, did not return my calls.
A patchwork of changing rules
The county approved the Briar Chapel development in the 2000s, before Chatham’s stormwater runoff program existed, Thorn said. Briar Chapel adheres to state regulations for stormwater permitting and sediment control, not Chatham County’s current regulations, which are now a little more strict than the state’s, according to Thorn.
Different areas in Chatham County have different sediment and stormwater runoff prevention protocols in place, Thorn said. Those protocols have to do with the year the area was developed, and by whom. Fearrington Village, for example, which lies just upstream of Beechmast, has no stormwater runoff systems in place at all, Thorn said.
Differing erosion and stormwater protocols for different sites make monitoring and mitigating environmental impact difficult, Thorn said. “What’s appropriate for one community may not necessarily be appropriate for another,” she added.
Annette Lucas, stormwater permitting program manager at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said that sediment prevention materials being used at the Briar Chapel construction site upstream from Beechmast Pond are engineered to weather the worst storm likely to be seen in a decade.
However, in the last two years, North Carolina has been hit by three historic hurricanes. The state has seen unprecedented levels of rainfall from each of those storms—Hurricane Florence brought over 30 inches of rainfall, shattering state records.
The state’s rules for reducing runoff from construction sites have not been updated to reflect climate change, Lucas said. As massive storms like hurricanes Michael and Florence increase in frequency, those designs might need to be addressed, she added.
“The technical guidance has probably become out of date,” she said. “That just may need to be updated.”
What other questions do you have about development or water quality in Chatham County? This is the first of a series of stories that will be based on Dianne Birch’s question. Next up, we’ll describe how all the various federal, state and local agencies oversee the environmental impact of development in the county.