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Riverkeepers get an intro to wetlands — by sight, smell and feel

Environmental, Sound Rivers, Wetlands

Posted on April 13th, 2023

By sight, by smell, by feel of the land beneath your feet, by the trees and plants in abundance — all are ways to speak the language of wetlands to figure out where wetlands are, and where they aren’t.

This week, Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell, Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Sound Rivers’ Water-quality Specialist Taylor Register got a primer in the language as they visited the Croatan National Forest with David Lekson, retired Chief of the Washington Regulatory Field Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District.

“David was walking us through how the Corps delineates wetlands,” Jill said. “It was great to be out in the field with him and see what the Corps sees when they go out: how these delineations are made which determines how wetlands are regulated.”

Croatan National Forest is considered the only true coastal forest in the East, and it’s one that is defined by water: it’s 160,000 acres of pine forests, saltwater estuaries, bogs and raised swamps called pocosins, surrounded by the Neuse, Trent and White rivers and the Bogue Sound.

And many types of wetlands, which the trio got to see and learn how to identify firsthand.

A riverine wetland in Croatan National Forest.

They visited what appeared to be a pool in the middle of the forest, but was actually a wetland fed by groundwater; another site looked more swamp-like, with bottomland hardwoods surrounded by water left over from riverine flooding. There were flatwood forest wetlands — flat land dotted by pools filled with lingering rainwater — and Carolina bays, water-filled circular or elliptical depressions that align in a northwest–southeast direction, with the southeastern end generally rimmed with white sand.

“David helped us understand nature’s ‘tells’ when it comes to finding wetlands, because sometimes you can’t tell just by looking,” Sam said. “There are plant indicators — plants that love water, plants that are obligated to live in water and some that do not like water; soil composition — is it sandy, is it clay, is it loamy, is it peat? Recognizing the stratification and layering of soil and how the water moves through it; topography, depressions and where it is in relation to other waterbodies; even what you might see or smell. For example, typical wetland soil smells really swampy and sulfuric.”

One of the most fascinating wetlands was the pocosin, which Sam described as a “high-elevation sponge.”

Made of peat and decomposing carbon, this land is so absorbent that little creeks appear out of nowhere, travel along the surface for a bit, then disappear again. It’s so spongy that as David was digging up soil to show them its consistency, the earth, literally, was moving beneath their feet.

“To be standing on what seems like ground, and someone picks up a shovel and starts digging and you can feel the ground move? It was really wild, to think about what you’re really standing on,” Jill said.

David is like a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about his field of wetland science and our local flora and fauna … he kept us entertained all day with his rapid-fire plant identification skills and his contagious passion for our natural areas.

—Taylor Register, water-quality specialist

The wetland identification tour comes at a critical time for wetland protections at both the state and federal levels. Three bills recently proposed in the North Carolina General Assembly would restrict the definition of wetlands to strict adherence to the federal definition in the Waters of the United States rule — which, itself, could be severely curtailed depending on the outcome of Sackett v. EPA, a case the U.S. Supreme Court is currently deliberating that could have major implications for the protection of wetlands.

“This was a beautiful day out in the field. We never just go out and look at beautiful things — we’re usually looking at pollution,” Jill said. “But these areas are at risk, by the case that the Supreme Court is deliberating and the proposed bills in the state legislature. Right now, North Carolina has stronger wetland protections than at the federal level, and we need to keep it that way.

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