Dialing down the risk: Haywood Waterways hopes to reduce future flood risk with grant
OO Over the next two years, Haywood Waterways Association will implement a $2 million grant aimed at protecting Canton, Clyde and Cruso when the next flood comes. The grant is by far the largest in Haywood Waterways’ 25-year history.
“Is it big? Yes. But are we able to do it? Yes,” said Executive Director Preston Jacobsen. “We have through time gained experience and the resources required, whether that be the team or the labor itself, the experience that we have through the years of work or the partnerships that we’ve established through those decades of being an organization. So this was just more of a natural evolution of us scaling up to this level of work.”
While Haywood Waterways has a quarter-century track record of putting grants to use for water quality and river restoration projects, historically those grants have been a fraction the size of the newly awarded N.C. Land and Water Fund grant — generally $150,000 to $350,000 at the high end.
But larger sums are needed to combat a larger problem. In 2004, two back-to-back hurricanes caused the Pigeon River to swell and a 500-year flood to inundate Canton and Clyde. In 2021, it happened again, this time as the result of flash flooding from Tropical Storm Fred. Rapidly rising floodwaters ripped through Cruso and down into Bethel and Canton, killing six people and causing tens of millions of dollars in property damage.
Floodwaters surge outside the home of Natasha Bright in Cruso on Aug. 17, 2021. Natasha Bright photo
The NCLWCF — formerly known as the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund — received $67 million worth of requests for $15 million of funding from its Flood Risk Reduction Grant. Not only was Haywood Waterways selected as one of 17 funded projects, but it received $2 million of its $2.3 million request, tying it with the City of Kinston in Lenoir County for the largest award received.
The $2 million grant will fund flood risk and flood impact reduction projects throughout the Upper Pigeon River and Upper Hominy Creek watersheds in Haywood County — with a focus on the Town of Canton.
“There is a need for a flood risk reduction plan, and there is an urgent need to protect what we have while we have that opportunity to do so, before and while development continues to increase and population continues to grow,” Jacobsen said. “So we’re looking at this as more of a hedge. Along the same vein, we’re also shoring up and working on restoration projects where applicable to reduce the impacts downstream, whether that be water quality impacts or property and human life impacts to businesses and personal homeowners downstream.”
Haywood Waterways is not going it alone. The Town of Canton, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District are all partnering on the project Haywood Waterways is administering. The partners will carry out the project in concert with a $200,000 grant Haywood Waterways received in October 2022, also from the NCLWCF, to fund planning efforts for the types of projects to be funded through the more recent $2 million grant.
“This planning grant is pairing up with this larger flood risk reduction grant to do the actual work,” Jacobsen said. “It was sort of backwards chicken-and-the-egg situation, but the funding became available at different times from the state legislature.”
Planning work is now in its initial stages, with community meetings from Clyde upstream as far as Cruso to take place this summer and fall, giving the planning team and engineering firm insight about issues and opportunities to work toward a more flood-resilient Pigeon River Watershed. Also this summer, Haywood Waterways will conduct its search for an engineering firm to do hydrologic modeling, create a finite project list and possibly carry out selected projects as well.
“We’re a team of three and a board of 15 members and with partners galore, but it’s really the community that makes this kind of work happen,” Jacobsen said.
After planning is complete, most of the work will take place in late 2023 and throughout 2024, potentially extending into 2025.
The flood risk reduction project area does not include Chestnut Mountain Nature Park, the 500-acre park that Canton opened 1 mile east of town last spring. However, Haywood Waterways is currently working on stream bank improvements on the property through yet another NCLWF grant. The survey is nearly complete for the $180,000 project. Next comes planning and design permitting, with shovels expected to be in the ground this summer.
Work will include completing previously identified shovel-ready projects to stabilize riverbanks in the watershed and working with the Town of Canton to establish engineered flood storage — if feasible — and secure a clean water intake source that also provides additional community benefits. Haywood Waterways will also identify data infrastructure gaps in the area, setting them and their partners up for future funding to install new gauges and sensors to better map out flood frequency and impacts.
About half the grant funds will go toward efforts to conserve farmland, secure conservation easements and purchase land for conservation in areas at greatest risk for future flooding.
When land is developed, natural filtration systems like grass and tree roots often disappear in favor of hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Stormwater flows quickly over these impervious surfaces, picking up pollutants as it speeds toward the nearest stream. On the other hand, natural surfaces slow the water down, keeping the riverbanks from filling up as quickly and catching pollutants before they can enter the waterway. By protecting land along the Pigeon River and its tributaries from development, Haywood Waterways hopes to keep future flood risk from climbing higher.
This effort is a scaled-up version of Rivers Edge Park in Clyde, which was created following the 2004 flood. FEMA funding allowed the town to buy out the 4.5-acre property, and in 2013 the park was created as floodwater storage to protect against future flooding, with recreation as a secondary purpose. In the years since, Haywood Waterways has received grants to create a master plan for the park and revegetate it with native species intended to further mitigate flooding impacts.
Volunteers plant river cane at Rivers Edge Park in Clyde during a January 2021 project aimed to boost the property’s resilience against flooding. Holly Kays photo
“We actually used that as one of our prime examples of work that can be done here locally,” Jacobsen said. “River’s Edge is still undergoing maintenance and improvement, but it continues to do what it was intended to do.”
The October planning grant contains funding for a study that hopes to put a dollar figure on such flood reduction benefits.
“We hope that there is opportunity to show that there is an economic and environmental benefit to protecting or evaluating a piece of property along the floodplain comparable with what the private market may value it at,” Jacobsen said.
Such a result, he said, could encourage the state to adjust how it evaluates easements and conservation pricing to match the private market.
“We think if we’re able to show from a protection standpoint, the value of that land is comparable to the private market, we may able to see an increase in conservation easements, not only in our part of the state but across the region,” he said.
Use of project funds is “extremely flexible,” but roughly 40-50% of the $2 million grant — about $800,000 to $1.1 million — will likely go toward conservation easements and land acquisition. Jacobsen hopes to protect 50-100 acres upstream of Canton this way.
“Really we’re just listening to our partners,” Jacobsen said. “We knew that there was a need. We’re always aware of funding opportunities and when they become available, and so we just do what we do best and kind of mesh all that together in a package and an application. And here we are, awarded $2 million to take on that opportunity.”