North Carolina Approves Updated Coastal Habitat Plan—A Win for Nature, Communities

Framework sets new standard, emphasizing water quality and its link to a healthy future

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North Carolina Approves Updated Coastal Habitat Plan—A Win for Nature, Communities
A walkway through a North Carolina wetlands with seagrass to either side.
Conserving and restoring wetlands, like this one in eastern North Carolina, helps filter pollutants from the water. A newly approved plan should improve the health of the state’s wetlands and seagrass habitats and increase coastal communities’ resilience to climate change.
Jim Sipple Getty Images

North Carolina’s coastal ecosystems, wildlife, and communities got a big boost Nov. 19 when the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission approved an update to its Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP). The CHPP is a science-based blueprint for effective, coordinated actions across state agencies to protect and restore estuarine habitat, and the plan lays out a roadmap to a more secure future for coastal communities and the state as a whole.

Plan reflects latest science

The plan provides clear and specific direction to state commissions and agencies, and identifies ways that individuals, organizations, towns, and even businesses can help protect and restore coastal habitats. The 49 recommendations include priorities for the next five years that include establishing a public-private partnership to champion water quality efforts, updating the regulations for water quality standards, and participating in the development of a regional salt marsh conservation plan.

Past CHPPs have centered on cataloguing habitats that are especially important to marine fish species. The 2021 update includes a new focus on water quality, which can greatly influence the overall health of coastal habitats. It also reflects themes in the state’s 2020 Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, which addresses the need to increase the resiliency of communities devastated by Hurricane Florence and other severe storms. That makes sense because the same measures that protect nearshore habitat can also promote resilience. For instance, restoring and conserving wetlands, which filter pollutants, can improve water quality, in turn promoting healthier underwater seagrass. These habitats can strengthen shorelines, helping communities withstand the impacts of climate change, from flooding to storms to sea level rise.

The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which led the CHPP update, convened scientists from within North Carolina and beyond to identify the problems affecting coastal habitats in the state, as well as effective solutions. Integral to the collaborative work on the update was a steering committee, comprising two members each from the three state commissions required to approve the plan—the Environmental Management Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission, and the Marine Fisheries Commission. The steering committee helped ensure that the evolving plan addressed the most important topics in the commissions’ purview.

Contributions came from broad-based group of stakeholders

Also contributing to the plan was an independent stakeholder work group, made up of nine representatives—from engineers and coastal municipal leaders to members of the state Farm Bureau. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the North Carolina Coastal Federation convened the group, whose role was to recommend nonregulatory actions to improve water quality, such as restoring watersheds to reduce pollution entering estuaries.

The stakeholder work group’s first sessions began with scientists from the University of North Carolina and other experts leading an in-depth exploration of what causes poor water quality, which helped foster a shared understanding of the challenges and a willingness to work together on solutions. The group’s consensus recommendations were incorporated into the CHPP.

North Carolina’s DEQ also reported more public input on the draft of the plan than on any previous one, including 42 letters written by individuals or organizations, 93 responses to an online survey, and more than 1,200 signatures from North Carolinians endorsing the CHPP.

The latest state budget, which the governor signed into law Nov. 18, contains notable funding for the agencies charged with the CHPP’s implementation. It will fall to DEQ leadership to ensure those funds are wisely invested in effective projects.

Approving the updated CHPP puts North Carolina in a strong position to make the case that it is ready for federal investment in projects that increase resilience to climate change, invest in green infrastructure, and strengthen coastal communities and ecosystems. The approval of the CHPP in the same week that the president signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act underscores the opportunities available to states that work on such plans.

Pew commends all who worked on the CHPP for maintaining momentum and focus while undertaking this ambitious task with a wide range of contributors. As we enter the time of year in which we make note of who or what we are grateful for, please add to your list the many who contributed to the state’s CHPP. They deserve a hearty thanks for their work to serve North Carolina’s coastal communities.

Leda Cunningham works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project in North Carolina.

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