WILMINGTON -- Stormwater runoff has become a major issue here in southeastern North Carolina, especially in areas that are growing rapidly. Stormwater runoff is considered to be the largest source of pollutants into coastal waters. And when you have rapid growth in coastal communities, the problem only gets worse. Parking lots, driveways, rooftops -- when rain falls on these impervious surfaces, stormwater runoff occurs. If rain can't penetrate a surface, any pollutants in the water can get washed into the nearest creek or lake. The more development there is, more impervious surfaces are created. This can lead to more pollutants flowing into our waterways - anything from fecal bacteria to dissolved metals. Mike Mallin with the UNCW Center for Marine Science said, "When you have a rapidly developing area like New Hanover County or some of the other coastal counties, it becomes a very major problem. You couple that with the shellfish beds which are in our tidal creeks and our sounds and the bacteria from the stormwater runoff closes the shellfish beds." Dr. Mallin says the problem didn't pop up overnight. "In the early '80s shellfishing of clams and oysters on the coast of North Carolina was a $14 million a year industry. Over the past two decades this has declined where it's about $4 million a year. So $10 million per year in income for the commercial shellfisherman has been lost over that time period." The rapid growth along our coast has been linked to high fecal bacteria counts, causing shellfish beds and area beaches to shut down. But there are steps to take to keep the problem from getting worse. "In areas that are already developed you can retrofit areas with various new techniques that are called biofilters," Mallin said. "And these are sand-filtration mechanisms that aren't very large but can handle the runoff from the parking lot direct it through this filter so that when it goes off into the storm water system, the water is clean so you don't have to worry about the type of pollution." And there is one simple thing that you can do to help the stormwater runoff problem. You can pick up after your dog when it goes to the bathroom and then put it in the trash or bury it in the shrubs to help fertilize. On a larger scale, there are other things that can be done. "Controlling the amount of impervious surface, increasing the amount of green space, but you also have to check for faulty septic systems to check for faulty sewer lines," Mallin said. As we head into the year 2020, environmentalists are being pro-active on the issue. They're working on installing solid rules to control the type of development along the coast in the future. Cape Fear Coastkeeper Mike Giles said, "The new rules are aimed at protecting the existing shellfish waters that are currently open and of course swimming recreational waters." And they are hoping to do that by engineering stormwater runoff control for current development and limiting the amount of impervious surfaces with future development. "It's a suite of things that I think together local government, federal government, and the state can work with developers, work with communities, so we can develop right," Giles said. So we need to find the happy medium so we can still continue building along the coast but can also still enjoy the treasures of southeastern North Carolina, our beaches and our seafood.
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