News Stories

Asheville Regulatory Field Office regulate mountainous areas of Western North Carolina

Published Aug. 20, 2008

   North Carolina is a state of geographic contrast.  And because of this contrast there are unique missions for each of the Wilmington District’s Regulatory field offices.  In Asheville, Regulatory Project Managers are responsible for 33 counties in the mountainous area referred to as Western North Carolina. 

   “Waters and streams emanate from the headwaters which are mostly found in the mountains of the Peidmont,” said Asheville Regulatory Field Office Chief Tom Walker.  “There aren’t a tremendous amount of wetlands like you find in coastal North Carolina.  Most of the work we do is for regulating jurisdictional streams that flow downstream to wetlands further east.  There are some areas here that flow into the Tennessee River and the Mississippi watershed.  We do have projects that are fairly big, but the impacts to wetlands are minimal.  A lot of times we get into issues of secondary effects like protecting the environments of endangered species.” 

   Determining what a jurisdictional stream is depends on two factors; the high water mark and the type of channel it is. 

    “We have to see if it’s a perennial channel meaning if it flows year round, or if it’s an intermittent channel meaning that it flows only part of the year,” said Regulatory Project Manager Amanda Jones.  “Our main focus when looking at mountain stream channels is to look at the ecology and critters like macro invertebrates which give us an indication of the water quality.  If there are certain kinds of insects we know we have good water quality, and if we’re not finding them that means that something might be wrong in the system.” 

   Walker said the majority of work his field office does is for road crossings or stream bank stabilization projects.  Like many parts of North Carolina development is increasing, and project managers must keep pace with the amount of permit applications they receive.

   “Real estate agents tell us that the mountains of North Carolina are a hotspot for developers now.  The land isn’t cheap, but it’s much more affordable than other places.  One thing that is going along with the development and seems to be gaining in popularity is what are called amenity lakes.  When subdivisions are built homeowners want a waterfront.  So developers improvise and try to create lakes.  Sometimes they are four acres, and sometimes they’re a hundred acres.” 

  Sport fishing for trout is big business in this part of North Carolina.  Walker said his field office has a direct impact in helping to keep waters healthy to maintain fish populations.  Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the discharge of fill material into waters of the U.S. requires a Department of the Army permit issued through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Division. Through the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Asheville Regulatory Field Office consults with the North Carolina Wildlife resources Commission to determine if permit requests will affect any trout resources within and near project boundaries.  If trout are located in the vicinity of the project, NCWRC may recommend that the applicant take further measures to avoid and minimize impacts to the stream channels.  This includes limiting construction to certain times of the year, construction techniques that would encourage fish migration, and installing more stringent sediment and erosion control measures. These recommendations are then incorporated as special conditions of the permit authorization.

    Walker, who spent a few years trudging around wetlands while with the Wilmington Regulatory Field Office, explained that wetlands, while sometimes fragile, have an ability to rebound if disturbed.  But when streams are disturbed, that’s another issue. 

   “If you take wetlands out, then restore them, they eventually grow back.  Let’s say there are 7000 acres and one acre is impacted.  Depending on where the impact is there probably won’t be any significant damage.  Streams are more direct. There’s a lot of energy in water flow, and if you disturb any part of it there’s a good chance of weakening it somewhere else.  If there’s erosion you’re going to have a lot of sediment that can go downstream for miles depending on the size of the project.  There is more potential for secondary impacts downstream.”

   Helping the public understand the role of the Ashville Regulatory Field Office is an on-going job that is getting bigger, especially with the influx of people in Western North Carolina.  Jones said the biggest challenge is helping people understand that regulatory issues are necessarily coastal issues only, even in environmentally-conscious Asheville and the surrounding areas. 

   “When we go onto somebody’s property and we tell them they have a stream channel that needs a permit it’s kind of a shock to them.  They don’t understand how their stream channel relates to the overall ecosystem, especially small headwater streams, springs, seepage…anything that people are used to seeing on property, but not knowing that there are permits involved if they plan to disturb those areas.  A lot of what we do is going out and informing and educating people.  It’s a slow process, but it’s worth it once they do grasp an understanding of how an ecosystem works.”