Sea level rise puts pressure on Hyde County

Hyde County, N.C.'s dike was first built to protect farmland from salt water intrusion. Now, residents say sea level rise presents a new concern.

Peril and Promise, our ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, climate change. Lead funding is provided by P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III. Find more stories in the series on the Peril and Promise website. 

Wayward winds hit Newman Seafood

HYDE COUNTY, N.C — Newman Seafood sits on a spit of land jutting into Pamlico Sound, just outside Swan Quarter. 

“My brother and I are taking it over,” explains Richard Newman, as he watches about 10 workers standing around a giant table, removing the heads from a new catch of giant shrimp that were just brought in by the boat that's now tied up at the dock.

“It gives us a lot of freedom and you get to work with nice people,” Newman continues. “You don’t do the same thing everyday, you’re outside and it’s just a nice business.”

However, it's not always easy. The family-owned firm has weathered the winds and water for almost 40 years. There are many years where it’s make or break and if expenses are covered, it’s considered a good year. In years when the catches are very good, some extra money is brought in and while there may be a pay raise for workers and a profit, the additional revenue is also used to catch up on maintenance.

These days, it’s more of a challenge because the area where the company sits floods several times per month even without storms in the area. It’s worse during hurricane season. Most Residents in Swan Quarter agree that sea level rise is making the flooding worse.

“We deal with small shrimp boats, crab boats, fish boats and some days are good and some days are not so good,” adds Newman. “It all depends what Pamlico Sound provides because that’s where the majority of our catches come from." 

On the coast, with wind comes flooding

The wind dictates when the boats and crews can work and when they can’t along with where they can work and where they can’t. It’s always been a challenge. But these days, it’s more of a challenge because the area where the company sits floods several times per month even without storms in the area. It’s worse during hurricane season.

“You can see our road and with that boat ramp right there our road floods,” says Newman, pointing to a ramp at the end of the peninsula on which his company sits. "When we have really strong northwest winds it makes it tough to work where we are. We’ve lost equipment and inventory a couple times when the water comes up quick.”

The docks are outside of the almost 18 mile dike that protects the town and the valuable farmland around it. Newman admits the dike has helped protect Swan Quarter and the farmland around it, although it hasn’t helped him. He also admits the rising water is getting worse.

“In general hurricane season, September and October, we are flooded most of that time,” Newman says. “But beyond that, at least a few times a month there’s water. I’m lucky my business is on a hill, but I’m flooded on this side of me and on that side of me.” 

The 30-year-old dike that protects Hyde County's farmland

Construction of the dike system started 30 years ago. It was first built to stop storm driven waves from flooding farmland. That’s called salt water intrusion. Salt water renders farmland unproductive for decades.

About 20,000 acres, roughly one-fifth of Hyde County’s farmland, was ruined by salt water intrusion before the dike was built.

On the inside of a dike, a few miles away, J.W. Spencer is in his pickup truck inspecting the dike that surrounded his farm. Spencer is on the Hyde County Soil and Water Board, which manages the dike.

“About three-quarters of what we farm is protected by the dike,” says Spencer. “About half of that wouldn’t be able to be cultivated, it would be totally ruined. It would be pine trees, it wouldn’t be feasible to cultivate it.”

Spencer can drive on the dike because for most of its length, the dike is a packed earthen berm. It tops out at six feet above sea level. Aside from the tire tracks, it’s difficult to see from the ground, but from the air it’s clear what the dike system protects.

Spencer’s farm stretches out on one side. There’s a drainage canal between the farm and the dike. That’s how the farm is drained of storm water. The dike runs along the canal and there are trees on the opposite side of the dike. The mix of pine trees and hardwood grow fine, close to the dike because they can survive the mix of fresh water from the canal and saltwater from the marsh beyond. But not far away the trees thin out and are replaced by salt marsh, all the way to Pamlico Sound.

The reality of the difference the dike makes

There are seven floodgates along the system. The gates sit at the end of canals that drain storm water from farm fields.

The gates are on hinges. When it rains the gates open because there is more water and more water pressure on the inside. When the water levels are roughly even, the gates stay closed, and when the tide rises the gates stay closed and don’t let the saltwater in.

Not far away, in the town of Swan Quarter, the dike is a steel and concrete wall.

There’s a reminder at Pat’s service station of how high floodwaters reached before the dike. Pat Spencer, the owner, shows off the lines on the wall of the service bays that mark how high the floodwaters reached after hurricanes Dennis, Floyd and Isabel. The station was under three or more feet of water after every storm. All that changed when the dike was built.

Daniel Brinn, the Coordinator of Hyde County’s Flood and Water Control Service, agrees.

“The dike is absolutely key to protecting the tax base, and farmland and personal property of the people in Swan Quarter,” says Brinn.

The other problem of sea level rise

But now residents living and working on both sides of the dike say the system is holding back more than just storm surge. Minor flooding is common and almost everyone in the county agrees they are experiencing sea level rise. There may be disagreements about the cause, such as climate change or just a fluke of nature, but there is no disagreement about what is happening.

“Low tides are higher than they used to be, high tides are higher than they used to be and normal is higher," says Spencer, who has been on the same farm in Hyde County all of his life. “I’d say the water is three to four inches higher, normal is three to four inches higher than it was 15 years ago."

Sea level rise is a real concern because most of Hyde County lies in the 100-year flood plain. It’s just three feet above sea level. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows the potential ranges of sea level rise over the next century to be from three and a half to eight feet. At those higher levels the dike system would be overwhelmed.

“As sea level rises that nuisance flooding that people see now is going to happen 100, 150, 200 times a year in the near term," says Astrid Caldas, Ph.D., a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That’s just 15 years from now. And the thing to remember is that will happen just with the normal tides that come and go everyday, that’s not with a serious storm.”

Reassessing the dike

So the county is studying whether to raise the height of the current dike and whether pumps should be added to drain the canals, which would allow the farmland to drain easier.

“Moving forward there will have to be plans to update and augment the function of the dike," says Brinn.

“They need to keep the dike system strong,” says Newman, as he watches another fishing boat come in. “However, we are water dependent. The boats have to be able to pull up to my dock to unload. I can’t just load it from here onto a truck and drive the catch into town to be processed. We’ll have to raise our buildings, I guess. We’ll see.”

J.W. Spencer agrees the dike system may need to be upgraded. But he wonders just what will be happening in the next few decades, as his sons are taking over the farm.

“According to the experts, in 100 years, Hyde County is going to be underwater,” he says, while conceding a few years ago he thought that would never happen. Now, he’s not so sure.

“And now, I don’t know. If we don’t do some things like this dike project, who knows what will happen. But I’m convinced we can protect everything.” 

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