Wetland Restoration and NC State: The North River Farms Wetland Restoration Project

wetland restoration

Wetland restoration is a crucial tool in sustaining, preserving and rebuilding natural environments along waterways. Wetland restoration includes many different techniques and instruments to build and evaluate their effectiveness, and this month’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) Online Blog takes a closer look at a specific, local wetland restoration project.

What is Wetland Restoration?

Wetlands are often impacted by human development which can disrupt the sources of water flow into wetland areas. Lack of water greatly impacts these environments, which either shrink in size or no longer contain necessary habitat elements that sustain typical wetland plant life or animals. Wetland restoration is a slow, deliberate process to return these habitats to their original status, thus restoring the natural ecosystem.

At NC State, members of the Biological and Agricultural Engineering programs are helping with local wetland restoration projects. One of which is the North River Farms Wetland Restoration Project.

The North River Farms Wetlands Restoration Project

The NC State University Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering earned a unique opportunity to assist in a wetland restoration project that was a large undertaking. A farm near the NC coast was willing to return its land back to its natural wetland state after more than 40 years since the land was filled in and converted to farmland.

Michael Burchell, associate professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, helped to design the restoration, which was ecologically important because of the area around the farmland. Situated at an estuary crucial for shellfishing, the land could serve as a buffer to the surrounding intensely cultivated watershed, according to an Environmental Monitor article.

The land was acquired by the North Carolina Coastal Foundation (NCCF), and the project has been underway since 2002. In that time, the North River Farms land area has been altered and planted with original flora, as well as with strategic configurations that intercept runoff. Through these configurations, the wetland hydrology of the area has been restored, improving the ability of the natural landscape to hold onto nutrients that travel downstream from other farms and agricultural areas.

NC State’s Role in the North River Farms Wetlands Restoration Project

NC State faculty from three different departments, including Burchell, Dr. Robert Evans, Dr. Garry Grabow, and Dr. Francois Birgand from Biological and Agricultural Engineering, worked in tandem with the the Ecosystem Enhancement Program (NCEEP, now the NC DEQ Division of Mitigation Services) and the NCCF. Together, these entities executed the project in multiple phases, first starting with design and building of wet hardwood wetland over 250 acres, plus post-construction monitoring of the resulting hydrology, tree survival and water quality improvements. Then, a second wetland system was designed over a 106-acre area, 35 acres of which included a tidal marsh near the estuary.

With funding from grants, the research on the restoration project has continued at various levels of intensity since 2003. Most recently, research and monitoring was conducted to accurately measure how much nitrogen from the upstream farms were removed by the new salt marsh system, as well as how much carbon was stored and greenhouse gasses emitted from the salt marsh. A long term study, in conjunction with the USGS, is ongoing to determine how the elevation of the salt marsh adjusts to sea-level rise.

The North River Farms Wetlands Restoration Project has and continues to serve as an incredible opportunity for specialists and researchers to learn more about restoration practices and their benefits, which will impact the quality and resiliency of our coastal resources.  

Check back for more from the BAE Online Blog in the fall, after we take a short break for the summer.