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After more than 20 years of work, a North Carolina wetland is brought back to life

Josh Sullivan
The North River Wetlands Preserve in Carteret County, N.C. on Feb. 6, 2023. The 6,000-acre preserve used to be farmland. Now it's been restored back to wetlands to help improve water quality of downstream estuaries.

The North River Wetlands Preserve in Carteret County used to be flat agricultural land with rows and rows of crops like soybean and potatoes. Now it’s 6,000 acres of trees, water, and marsh, with some occasional fire ants, bears and snakes.

The North Carolina Coastal Federation has worked on restoring this land since 1999. Todd Miller, the executive director of the federation, has been overseeing this project since the beginning.

"It’s a pretty rare opportunity to actually see nature come back in its glory and see a system the way it should be," Miller said. "Knowing that it’s not just a beautiful wetland, but that we’re doing something good for the downstream waters and that we’re gonna have a healthier coast as a result of that, is pretty gratifying."

Josh Sullivan
The North River Wetlands Preserve in Carteret County, N.C., on Feb. 6, 2023. These trees were planted as part of the restoration project that started in 1999 and finished in December. Ward Creek is an estuary of the North River, which flows into the Back Sound and Onslow Bay.

Wetland habitats play several crucial roles, including protecting water quality, preventing floods, and serving as critical territory for unique plants and animals. But for much of the 20th century, most people thought they were unsanitary and harmful.

In North Carolina, over a million acres of wetlands were drained for development or farming. According to the extension service at North Carolina State University, "estimates indicate that over 50 percent of the wetlands that existed when colonists first settled our state have been lost."

Now there are strong efforts to restore these habitats. There are federal and state laws aimed at protecting natural wetlands. This restoration project in Carteret County was just one of many happening across the state and the country.

When this wetland was drained and cleared for agricultural use, it created downstream water pollution.

"Anytime that water can move faster, and not across a vegetated environment, it can pick up all the pollutants associated with whatever's going on on that surface," said Bree Charron, coastal engineer with the federation. "So for [farm] land, it's going to be sediment primarily, and then everything that could be attached to this sediment, like nutrients, herbicides [and] pesticides."

Josh Sullivan
The North River Wetlands Preserve in Carteret County, N.C. on Feb. 6, 2023. Todd Miller's black truck drives on top of a 'dyke,' or a dam that's made from excavated soil with the purpose of keeping water on the land, like the water seen on the right.

The main goal of rebuilding the North River Wetlands Preserve was to improve the water quality of downstream waters.

"Our goal was to ... have [the land] do what it would have done prior to being cleared ... which is soak in [rain] water and slowly percolate it through the groundwater to the streams and creeks," said Charron.

Miller likens the process to humans' own filtering system.

"The land [acts] like a big kidney for the coastal waters, processing all this water before it flows overboard," said Miller. He adds that having cleaner water flow downstream helps create healthier habitats.

The first step in this project was closing off ditches that drained the water so the water stayed on the land. Those ditches were built for agricultural use, as the land is naturally too wet to farm on.

Ditches were closed off by excavating parts of the land and using that soil to build an elevated dam around the entire perimeter of the area.

"And the area that we excavated the soil from, we made a salt marsh," said land manager Mark Smith.

Next to this preserve is Open Grounds Farm, widely known as the biggest farm east of the Mississippi River. This wetland area helps mitigate runoff that comes from the farm.

"We're a good buffer to that operation. Not only did we do away with our runoff, but we're absorbing some of their impact as well," Miller said.

The next step of the project was planting trees and plants. Miller estimates that around 2 million trees were planted on the preserve over the past 23 years, with the trees themselves naturally bringing in another million. After that, nature takes its course.

The North Carolina Coastal Federation hopes to add more land to the preserve. The land that currently makes up the protected area was acquired mainly through several grants.

The organization is also working to restore other areas. Miller hopes this project will inspire others.

"This is a massive project but it’s not big enough. We need a lot more of it," said Miller. "It’s going to take continued investment of people, energy and resources to replicate these types of projects."

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.