So. Shores group wants answers to water-quality questions

By on May 7, 2018

Soundview Park in Southern Shores. (Russ Lay)

Almost a year ago, Southern Shores resident and Civic Association officer Carol Riggin appeared before the Dare County Board of Commissioners with one issue on her mind — the quality of the Currituck Sound waters at Soundview Park on Dogwood Trail.

As she pointed out to the commissioners, from 2003 until 2010, when the state ceased testing the waters adjoining the site, swim advisories due to unsafe levels of fecal coliform, enterococci, or E. Coli had been posted an average of 88 days per year.

With state testing stopped, the association conducted some tests of their own in 2016 and the results indicated bacterial contamination was still a problem.

The association had three requests: Resume testing at the Southern Shores Soundview Park; determine the root cause of the high levels of enterococci in shallow and waist-deep waters; and assistance in remediation once the cause was discovered.

All of which begged a larger question — who is responsible for testing water quality and cleaning up these smaller water-access points used by citizens for wading beaches, boat launches and other recreational purposes?

From 1998 until 2010 the N.C Department of Environmental Quality fulfilled the testing function.

Testing was made possible from federal funding that had been made available to the state and included sampling numerous sites identified as popular access points.

North Carolina tested sites used by the public on a regular basis in Dare County using state guidelines to categorize them into three tiers.

Tier 1 and Tier 2 sites were regularly tested by the state.

The classifications were based on several criteria, but the most important were the number of people using the sites, the frequency of daily usage and how people interacted with the water environment.

For example, Tier 1 sites are used by many people who tend to be in direct contact with the water. Ocean beaches and inland “swimming or wading beaches” along the sounds are examples of Tier 1 areas. These sites tend to have high usage three or more days per week.

As the number of users declines along with direct contact with water, at a boat launch or an area where kayakers put into the water, for example, a Tier 2 or 3 assignment is provided.

At one time, the state regularly tested all three tiers, and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, through the Division of Marine Fisheries, stationed personnel in Dare County to test the sites, sometimes daily.

Prior to funding cuts and re-classification of tiers that began in 2010, 52 sites were tested in Dare for bacterial markers.

After the final round of funding cuts and re-classifications in 2014, all Tier 2 sites were dropped, and a few former Tier 1 sites, such as Soundview Park, were re-classified with a Tier 2 designation based on visitor numbers rather than its use as a wading beach.

Thus, in 2016, the number of sites tested by the state declined to 32, meaning 20 areas used by the public are no longer tested by the state.

The SSCA’s self-testing reveals the problem still exists six years after state testing ended (SSCA image)

Since Soundview Park is now a Tier 2 site, the state no longer provides testing.

Federal cutbacks led to state cutbacks, according to Jordan Hennessey, legislative aide to Sen. Bill Cook, and those cuts were made in 2009 under the administration of Gov. Beverly Perdue and implemented in 2010 by the then-Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Shortly after the June 5, 2017 meeting, we met with Riggin and members of the SSCA to discuss the history of the park’s water quality issues and the association’s efforts to resolve the problem.

At the time this appeared to be fairly easy story to run down. We placed calls to state and local elected officials and quickly received their responses.

But when we turned to the scientists who had been involved in the testing programs or studies of water, they did not want to go on the record about funding cutbacks and whether they posed a threat to public health.

Nor were any of the scientists we spoke to willing to say whether the contamination was caused by human or natural factors.

One state employee pointed us in the direction of a 10-year study conducted by the state and private sector that had been “bottled up” for two years at DENR awaiting the release of a final report.

We were able to obtain the study after several months of phone calls and email requests, and while the study focused primarily on ocean outfalls, they did investigate sounds and other waterways and the conclusions appeared to lead to human causes, primarily faulty septic tanks and stormwater runoff from yards, and other sources where animal feces was present.

One scientist was willing to say off the record that in Southern Shores, the man-made canal system likely served as a reservoir of contaminants and then fed them into the Currituck Sound waters near the park.

Another state official, also wishing to remain 0ff the record, told us that while the number had been few, there were incidences on the record of illnesses from the sound waters in Southern Shores.

The members of the SSCA said they were not aware of any significant reports of illness over the years in spite of the high levels of recorded contaminants. But that doesn’t ease their concerns about the future or answer their questions regarding the cause of the high levels of enterococci at the park.

Ironically, on the day we met, a young couple drove up to the park, unloaded a kayak and waded into the waters to launch the boat and paddle into the Currituck Sound

A longtime member, watching the couple, told us the name of the park used to be the Southern Shores Wading Beach.

But after the numerous days swimming advisories were posted during the time the state was testing regularly, they changed the named to Soundview Park and discouraged residents from using the area as a beach.

Now they want their wading beach back.

And their appearance before the Dare County Board of Commissioners was just one of many appeals they’ve made over the past year.

They asked the Dare commissioners to support their request for funding to bring back the testing to Tier 2 and 3 sites in the county.

Riggin also expressed a desire that state employees. which at one time comprised a team of three testers, be returned to Dare, a situation commissioner Jim Tobin promised to look into.

The SSCA asked Dare to pass a resolution on the restoration of funding. The Southern Shores Town Council passed a resolution supporting the SSCA’s request for the state to provide funding to resume water sampling and if necessary, remediation, citing the waters as a public trust that should fall under the responsibility of the NCDEQ.

In their resolution, the Town of Southern Shores used the word “assist” in regard to remediation, indicating a willingness to share some of the cost with the state.

Likewise, members of the Dare Board of Commissioners, responding to Riggin’s request, signaled a willingness to consider working with the town and the state on future remediation possibilities.

For the remaining Tier 1 sites, the problems with bacterial contamination are well known in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head beaches, where episodic warnings have been issued to swimmers over the past few years.

Another Tier 1 hotspot, the Jockey’s Ridge sound-side access area, which is heavily used by swimmers and for other watersports, has also experienced closures due to fecal contamination after heavy rains cause faulty septic systems to leach into the groundwater and to the Albemarle Sound.

Hennessey told the Voice last year that Sen. Cook’s office was looking into grant possibilities for Southern Shores, a route Nags Head is pursuing through the Dare County Soil and Water Conservation District.

On Friday, state Rep. Beverly Boswell, R-Dare, announced she will file legislation in the short session later this month to re-establish the northern N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality water testing laboratory in Dare County.

“The legislation that I am sponsoring will help us protect our natural resources by again sampling and analyzing our coastal waters to ensure they are safe for wading, swimming and shellfishing,” Boswell said.

Her proposal would appropriate $176,946 in recurring funds and $95,898 in nonrecurring funds to NCDEQ to re-establish of the shellfish sanitation and recreational water quality laboratory in Nags Head and fund a lab technician position.

The Southern Shores Civic Association is also doing its part.

“The SSCA collected water samples in October and transported them to UNC Morehead City for potential DNA testing,” said Riggin.

But there was not a sufficient amount of bacteria to conduct that test, but the group plans to obtain samples this month when the weather and water start to warm, increasing the probability of higher bacteria numbers.

The UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City has offered to conduct the tests at no cost to the SSCA and they are anxious to discover if these tests will at least identify if the bacteria is of human or animal origins.

Even if the testing returns and identifies the cause, the next step poses a formidable challenge, especially if the bacterial contamination is the result of human activities.

Remediation will be an expensive proposition and may require extensive efforts to repair septic systems, reduce backyard pet waste and determine if the canal system is part of the problem and what fixes that might entail.

And of course, the bigger question will be who is responsible for cleaning up the waters and how will the costs be divided among local, county and state governments?

Cover photo credit: N.C. State University

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  • Bud

    One again, another major issue due to destruction of the area, overpopulation and tourist hoards.
    Bring back the fishermen!

    Monday, May 7 @ 7:40 am
  • Runnerguy45

    This article shows why having a free and independent press in small towns is vital to the health of the community. I’d like to thank Mrs Riggin for her work on trying to keep citizens safe. We’d never hear about it if it were not for the Voice. This issue should be followed closely.

    Monday, May 7 @ 8:29 am
  • Ed Danko

    As a County Commissioner I will FULLY support the request for funding to bring back the testing to Tier 2 and 3 sites in the county. To see where I stand on all the issues please visit (and don’t forget to vote Tuesday!)

    Monday, May 7 @ 6:50 pm
  • Mr Lee

    Has anyone ever did a count of how many septic systems are within 50 yards of Martins point creek and especially the canals in duck woods, I wish we had data from the 70s to compare before all the building began. Think of how many millions of gallon’s of water and waste that are flushed through these septic systems in one summer alone. Me and my family swam there in the 70s and never seen any issues, although cousin Billy had to have something removed from his forehead that looked like a horn. I remember a few years back they were blaming it on the geese and ducks, I knew that was a joke. This is a result of progress, my old granddad would say. So do you really think the decline in our fisheries in our sounds is the soul responsibility of our commercial fisherman. I think there are many people in our state that owe our commercial fisherman an apology for ruining they livelihood.

    Tuesday, May 8 @ 6:32 am
  • Michael

    Mr lee , excellent point. We as a county tend to focus on silly and I mean silly things such as plastic bags, but focus on topics like you just brought up. It’s hush hush on those very important topics .

    Tuesday, May 8 @ 8:40 am
  • Runnerguy45

    Mr Lee, You make very good points. I’d like to hear an explanation to the points you bring up.

    Tuesday, May 8 @ 8:58 am
  • scales of balance

    But aren’t we all glad we stopped such wasteful spending on government programs? Anyone?

    Tuesday, May 8 @ 4:36 pm
  • Honey Dipper

    Thy call it Central Sewage System , That way is will stay out of the canals & sounds .Wake up OuterBanks You are all responsible for what we have done to the sounds & sea.

    Wednesday, May 9 @ 6:34 am
  • Richard

    Yep, only central sewer system and treatment plants will solve this problem. Are the SS residents up for the cost of the solution? At least you don’t allow them rental machine 24+ bedroom homes adding insult to injury. So much of the beach is but a septic drain field. Not too hard to figure out is it?

    Thursday, May 10 @ 10:35 am
  • Roger

    There are too many drain fields in Southern Shores, and in many other communities on the beach, that do not have an adequate drop between the distribution pipes in the drain fields and the water table. Many of these drain fields will only pass a perk test in the dry months of the year. Thirty years ago I was told in confidence by a health department employee who conducted perk tests that this was well known and that contractors knew to ask for test only when conditions were right. Some people in our community who made their living in land development at that time worked to make sure that this problem was not addressed. As water levels rise this problem will only get worse. There is little point in a testing program unless the community is ready to invest the millions of dollars required to address this problem through a sewer system to serve at least these low elevation homes.

    Thursday, May 10 @ 9:19 pm
  • It's the poop stupid

    Whose responsible? Everyone is responsible. #1 on that list
    Is the people living in those SS neighborhoods full of canals next to septic tanks! Central sewer is no panacea. Myrtle Beach has Central sewer.
    Central sewer allows even more big buildings full of …it. It would also help if people would clean their dogs 1/4 pound steaming dumps off the beaches where kids play.

    Saturday, May 12 @ 6:45 pm
  • El rico

    Right on right on,we know the about taxing 7bedrooms and more as a business not a single family dwelling. Think LP or natural gas toilets,while in Maine one hot summer we met a couple that lived on a island in the Acadia National Park.they invited us over to their place,it was my first experience in one. It works,just a little pile of ash

    Wednesday, May 16 @ 6:17 pm