Perspectives Online

Smart Restoration - Extension works to help make mountain town’s redevelopment environmentally friendly. By Art Latham

Extension’s efforts have made green again a Newland park site. Photo by Art Latham

Newland, in a North Carolina mountain valley at about 3,600 feet of elevation, probably is the last place you’d think to look for life-endangering tropical storm damage.

Newland park site includes a water-filtering wetland.
Photo by Art Latham
Surrounded by peaks of up to 4,500 feet, it’s the highest county seat east of the Rocky Mountains. But about 800 Newlanders took a major hit in September 2004, when hurricanes Frances and Ivan dumped tons of water on Avery County and western North Carolina.

The town was inundated with 39 inches of rain, which ultimately flooded the several square blocks of relatively flat downtown area, damaging 37 commercial and government buildings and several homes to the tune of $1 million. The storms also wreaked havoc on the Christmas tree farms that blanket several hilltops around the town.

“In many areas, the rivers and streams changed course altogether and created a new channel,” says Wendy Patoprsty, North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent for natural resources and environmental educator for Avery and Watauga counties. “Many people lost their bridges and large chunks of land from the power of the water.

“However, Extension’s demonstration stream restoration projects held up well here because of the great riparian vegetation that had been planted and allowed to grow. Other areas where vegetation had been cut down had many problems with bank erosion,” she says.

Due partially to lessons learned from the hurricanes, when Newland began to rebuild, Extension agents worried that all the new impervious surfaces — streets, sidewalks, parking lots — would contribute to pollution of the Kentucky and the North Toe rivers, which run through the town. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Water Quality identifies the streams as “high quality” and “outstanding resource” waters.

“Avery County’s streams are some of the cleanest in the state,” Patoprsty says, “but due to steep topography and rapid development, they are threatened. The loss of riparian corridors and increased impervious surface area also have severely impacted and degraded overall water quality. The streams must be protected from the pollution in direct storm-water runoff or we will damage our revenue-producing natural resources even more.

“The development would have increased runoff tremendously, so our plan was to divert it into a series of created wetlands to bio-filter polluted runoff from 20 acres of downtown Newland before it re-entered the North Toe,” she says.

Water-quality best management practices have restored and diverted Avery County streams, including the North Toe River (top). Extension’s Wendy Patoprsty (bottom, right) advises Newland Town Manager Brenda Pittman.
Photos by Art Latham
Since the area regularly was washed by sheets of rain from downtown streets and parking areas, Patoprsty submitted a $200,000 grant for a natural water-slowing and filtering system and park — known since January as the Roby Shomaker Wetlands and Family Recreation Park — to collect and cleanse storm water before it hit the North Toe.

Town officials liked the plan and acquired one of the last large open downtown areas, a low-lying 10.37 acres at a North Toe bend, for green space development. Site preparation began early last fall, as workers slogged through deep mud, installing native plants and Caterpillars scooped a wetland pond from the floodplain muck.
“It is only common sense that reducing water velocity decreases erosion,” says Tommy Burleson, Avery County planning inspections department director, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumnus (1974) and former N.C. State basketball great. “Storm water containment and holding areas — forebays, rain gardens, level spreaders and sheet flow-slowing techniques — are the only way to feed the water table and maintain the aquifers which are the life blood of whole ecological systems.”

The engineering techniques, or water quality “best management practices” (BMPs), Burleson mentions improve in-stream and riparian habitat, while they reduce sediment and other pollutants entering the North Toe’s headwaters, which run to the Nolichucky and the French Broad rivers. The BMPs should reduce nitrogen influx by 20 percent and phosphorus by 40 percent, Patoprsty says.

In fact, the wetland is already working. “There’s a big difference in the water quality entering and leaving the area. It’s actually cleaning our water,” she says.

Other BMPs in place include 1,000 feet of stream restoration that uses bioengineering and natural channel design techniques – rock vanes that jut into the stream to redirect and slow the river’s flow rate and reduce harmful bottom scouring, and willow rootwads that stabilize banks — to restore the degraded and straightened trout stream to its natural meandering state.

These October 2007 (top) and May 2008 views show how the Roby Shomaker Wetlands and Family Recreation Park has evolved.
Photos by Art Latham
The mostly native plant population Patoprsty helped establish in a 50-foot riparian buffer enhances wildlife habitat for the macro-invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain, as well as for trout and birds. 

In addition to balled and burlapped shrubs, oak, maple and other native species for bank stabilization, she says, “we planted 1,500 ‘live stakes’ — plants that produce rootings from cuttings — on the riverbank. They include elderberry, ninebark, black and silky willow and silky dogwood.”

The project also has served as a Cooperative Extension demonstration site for community groups and professional engineers from across the southeastern United States who participated last fall in Dr. Greg Jenning’s River Courses trainings. Jennings, a CALS Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department professor and Extension specialist, conducts a variety of professional workshops and short courses that typically include case studies, design practices, updates of state and local regulations and site tours to such projects as the park.

Patoprsty plans to train volunteers to collect rain samples at the park.

“We’ll take samples to a certified state lab to test for heavy metals, total suspended solids, turbidity, pH and other conditions. This information is really important,” Patoprsty says. “It can mean funding for more projects if we document the advantages of this one.”

While many assisted with Roby Shomaker Park’s development, Patoprsty credits Keith Hoilman, town operations director, with helping make the dream a reality. “He was instrumental, and his knowledge, insights and logistical planning have been key components in making everything work out,” she says.

While the park officially opened in August, the North Toe was already stocked with trout and fisherfolk had lines in the water at state Wildlife Resources Commission wooden piers along the river since late spring.

“People can walk the paved bike trail if they want, but they’ll need to look out. It’s mostly for kids,” says Brenda Pittman, Newland town manager, who also notes that the park will be a valuable public asset.

Other civic officials also seem pleased with the project.

Patoprsty and Pittman survey the park-in-progress, already filtering storm water near downtown Newland.
Photo by Art Latham
“I believe that protection of our natural resources is the only way our children and grandchildren will be able to have a prosperous future and a sustainable quality of life,” says Burleson. “I’d like to thank Wendy Patoprsty, and Drs. Greg Jennings and Bill Hunt of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering for their involvement.”

But the town’s operations manager may sum it up best: “This is a great place for kids to play and learn,” says Hoilman. “And the park cleanses our storm water and protects our river resources at the same time.”