Carteret County

Newport River Estuary Restoration

The pristine waters of the Newport are classified by the state of North Carolina as shellfish waters (SA) and parts are designated as primary nursery areas (PNA) supporting key life stages of fish and shellfish. The River is surrounded by urban and industrial development, farms, roads, national and industrial forests, and wetlands.

Why is the Newport River important?

The Newport River is one of the most economically valuable and environmentally endangered oyster-growing estuaries in North Carolina. The river supports local commercial and recreational fishing, oyster aquaculture, swimming, and tourism. These uses depend on clean surface waters to thrive and are major economic drivers in the region…but the water quality of the Newport River has been declining for decades.  

What is threatening the Newport River’s water quality?

Rapid population growth and intensified land use have altered the landscape’s natural hydrology. These changes include increased development, loss of natural buffers, and drained wetlands for crops and forests. Rain funnels pollutants on the ground over hard, channeled, or piped surfaces into the water and is the primary transport of bacteria, nutrients, and other pollutants to the River and its tributaries. 

The rain used to soak into the surrounding landscape but land use changes have increased the volume and rate of stormwater runoff. Now just a 1.5″ rainfall is all that is needed to flush enough pollutants to temporarily close shellfish waters to harvest in the main stem of the estuary.

Why develop a watershed restoration plan for the Newport?

Today, much of the river is designated as impaired by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and action is needed to ensure fishing and shellfishing can continue and thrive. In 2022, the  N.C. Oyster Restoration and Protection Plan prioritized the Newport River estuary as a top priority for restoration. A restoration plan will provide a roadmap to protect, restore and replicate the natural hydrology of the watershed to reduce polluted runoff from reaching the river. 

Key Collaborators

A key group of dedicated collaborators including local governments, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and community stakeholders is joining together to create an action plan to restore the Newport’. These collaborators include:

  • Carteret County
  • Coastal Carolina Riverwatch
  • Crystal Coast Ecotours
  • GPI
  • Morehead City
  • N.C. Division of Water Resources
  • N.C. Department of Transportation Hydraulics Unit
  • N.C. State University
  • North Carolina Coastal Federation
  • Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Section of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries
  • Town of Beaufort
  • Town of Newport
  • Wheatley Law Group
  • and community members

Plan Development

Development of the restoration plan will involve a multi-year initiative. The collaborators listed above will work with community stakeholders to develop a strategic restoration plan utilizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Nine Minimum Elements so the plan can be formally adopted and implementation strategies funded and carried out.     

To begin the process, in the spring of 2022, a team of NCSU researchers and local experts began collecting and analyzing water quality data and long-term watershed trends. The team is identifying areas of the River that are experiencing elevated levels of microbial contamination. 

In addition, they are evaluating the influence of rainfall on river pollution and working to determine the relationships between contamination and other water quality parameters to better understand the Newport River system in its entirety. 

The team is focusing on existing sites routinely sampled by the Shellfish Sanitation Section of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and sampling additional sites to provide a comprehensive picture of the subwatershed that are having the biggest impact on the overall water quality of the river.

Once complete, the water quality analysis will provide important data to inform the development of the restoration plan. 

This important restoration project is being supported by funds from the N.C .Land and Water Fund, N.C. General Assembly and the Kenan Foundation.

Newport Implementation

June 2023: The North Carolina Coastal Federation was awarded $1.6 million from the North Carolina Land and Water Fund Flood Risk Reduction Program to design and implement the restoration of 1,100 acres of ditched and drained timberland to wetlands within the Newport River watershed.  The total 1,400-acre tract was recently purchased by the N.C. Coastal Land Trust is being transferred to the Federation. The tract includes 1,100 acres of timberland and 300 acres of high-quality wetland habitat.

The restoration will include blocking the flow from the drainage ditches on the previously owned Weyerhaeuser silviculture property to decrease the volume of water moving to the river during a storm event.  In addition, the project will restore the floodplain area along the tributary running through the center of the property to allow for floodwater storage. 

When complete the project is projected to retain approximately 165 million gallons of runoff on the property during a large storm.