No recourse for trout farmer in wake of menacing landslides
Howard Brown doesn’t sleep well when there’s rain in the forecast.
His trout farm in Nantahala — teaming with $400,000 worth of rainbow trout at any given time — has twice been victim of near miss landslides from a road on a too-steep slope above him.
The most recent was in January. A landslide nearly destroyed Brown’s trout farm, just missing a vital intake that provides fresh water from nearby White Oak Creek to his fishery. In 2004, a different landslide almost registered a direct hit on the intake.
Now Brown is wondering when the next big one will come and who will pay for it if it does devastate his valuable trout farm.
“If that other side of the mountain comes off we’re going to lose the whole farm,” Brown said. “This is a very serious thing for us right now. It doesn’t seem like the people down below these things have any rights at all.”
Brown runs Andrews-based Carolina Mountain Trout, with several trout farm sites in the area. The one in Nantahala is the largest and most important — it’s where he raises fingerlings that then supply his other trout farms. It’s a big operation, claiming to be the largest rainbow trout supplier in the East.
Brown estimates that there are about 275,000 pounds of fish on the farm that, when harvested, could be sold for an upwards of $1.50 per pound. So, for Brown to have a slurry of water and dirt run down the mountain and smother the fresh water source his fish depend on, the scenario would not only be damaging but expensive, too.
Both landslides originated from a privately built road on land above his farm during major rain storms.
The 2004 slide was triggered by the remnants of two hurricanes that parked themselves over the region for several days. The landslide came down the mountain so powerfully that it took out trees on the hillside and sounded like thunder when it hit the valley, Brown said. It was 800 feet long and 200 feet wide.
The most recent landslide happened following prolonged heavy rains in January. That one was up to 400 feet long and 100 feet wide.
“It was just mud and rocks coming through,” Brown said. “It’s a mess, it really is.”
And both landslides have left scars in the landscape, absent of vegetation, that slowly seep sedimentation into the stream and the trout farm.
Mark Cantrell, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Asheville, said sediment from landslides can be especially harmful to fish. While the water is clouded with debris, fish have difficulty finding food. And as the sediment settles at the bottom of the stream, it can harm nests of fish eggs and other insects the fish feed on and diminish the circulation of oxygen in the water.
Each time another storm occurs, that same sedimentation can be stirred up again until it is finally flushed out of the system. Cantrell said the safer bet for the fish is to prevent large amounts of sediment from entering the ecosystem in the first place.
“It should be said that construction on steep slopes for roads or houses should be at a safe enough distance from waterways,” Cantrell said.
Brown said the roads above the stream feeding his trout farm were put in place unbeknownst to him. And, judging by the steep angle of the slope on which the roads are located, they should have not been put in place, Brown said.
Landslide prone slope
After the second landslide in January, Brown sought outside help from the experts in the field of landslide science. It turns out a set of landslide hazard maps the N.C. Geological Survey developed in 2006 labeled the area as highly unstable and prone to landslides during rain.
Rick Wooten, a geologist with the N.C. Geological Survey, visited the site in February. Wooten determined that the roads were built on a slope approaching 100 percent grade. The soil type is also problematic. It is rich in mica, which doesn’t compact well. As a result the fill dirt used for the road gave way.
However, Wooten said his agency is not a regulatory one.
When roads are under construction, they must comply with state and county sediment and erosion control rules.
“If problems show up in later years after it’s constructed those sedimentation erosion ordinances don’t really apply anymore,” Wooten said.
While Macon County now has an ordinance that requires basic standards for private road construction in subdivisions, it wasn’t in place when this road was built.
Macon County also doesn’t have any mechanism for placing blame after a landslide has occurred, said County Planner Matt Mason.
“At this point it’s something the two landowners have to settle,” said Mason.
Brown may be left without any recourse except to work directly with the landowners or through litigation.
If a third landslide were to affect his business, Brown said he would likely take the matter to court. He said he has contacted the owner of the road and that property owner doesn’t want to invest in any improvements. He’s left looking at alternatives, such as buying the property himself or offering to fix the road to avoid another catastrophic incident.
“That road should have never been put in there, but people just come in and do what they want to do and somebody’s got to pay for it,” Brown said.