After Centuries Of Draining This Swamp, The Government Now Wants To Save It

Jul 3, 2017
Originally published on July 3, 2017 10:10 pm

"Drain the swamp" may be a popular political slogan, but it doesn't always work so well in nature.

In southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has been dramatically altered over the past few centuries by human development, creating an environment more vulnerable to both floods and wildfires. Now, a federal project is trying to restore some of the swamp's natural habitat and other characteristics through a $3 million effort that aims to reverse some of that damage.

The swamp is a vast wooded area spread out over more than 100,000 acres and populated with eagles, wild turkeys and bears. Refuge Manager Chris Lowie says water used to move more freely here, before humans started building ditches.

"The ultimate goal for us is to slow the drainage of the swamp. These ditches — 150 miles of ditches — have been dug throughout the swamp for the specific purpose of draining it," he says.

Development began centuries ago, says Delores Freeman, a visitor services specialist at the refuge. European colonists saw the lush plant and animal life and decided to try farming it. Freeman says George Washington was among the first to develop the swamp.

"[They thought], 'Oh, this would be a good place — we'll drain it, we'll put in some ditches, we'll be able to make some great agricultural fields out of it,' " Freeman says. "None of that really worked for Mr. Washington and his business partners, though."

Washington quickly learned that the peat soil here, made out of decomposing twigs and other plants, isn't so great for farming. But the swamp's cypress and cedar trees soon attracted loggers, including Washington, who built more dams and ditches.

Freeman says those structures disrupted the natural flow of water.

"Some parts of the swamp are much wetter than before; on the other side of the ditch, the swamp would be much drier than it was previously," she says. "So, many of our habitat management problems are due to the fact that we have an imbalance of what the natural condition would be."

That imbalance harms wildlife habitat and creates potential problems for the 1.6 million people who live near here in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

When peat soil dries out, it's less able to absorb floodwaters and essentially becomes kindling. In 2011, a wildfire started by a lightning strike burned through the swamp for more than 100 days.

That's the kind of disaster Lowie hopes to mitigate, if not avoid altogether.

"What it will do is reduce the impacts of flooding downstream to the communities, and it will reduce the frequency — the chance of a wildfire. And if we do have a wildfire, it will reduce the severity of a wildfire," he says. "But it's not gonna stop wildfires, and it's not gonna stop flooding."

In a section of the swamp that borders a residential neighborhood in Chesapeake, Va., Lowie demonstrates how he operates the 14 structures that are being installed to help control the movement of water through the swamp. Each one looks like a metal gate built into an earthen driveway that forms a small dam. Water runs through the ditches on either side.

Lowie uses aluminum boards to adjust the flow of the water.

"So pulling these boards is like pulling the drain plug," he says.

Lowie and his colleagues can use the structures to re-wet dry areas of the swamp or slow the flow of water when a major storm is coming.

The work is part of a larger $787 million federal recovery and resilience effort paid for with funds appropriated by Congress after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities along the Atlantic coast in 2012.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman David Eisenhauer says projects from Maine to Florida are restoring marshes and removing obsolete dams.

"A lot of these projects work with nature to make these natural areas ... more resilient to impacts like increased intensity of storms and sea-level rise," Eisenhauer says.

Lowie says those are issues he's aware of as he manages the Great Dismal Swamp, which is in a coastal area often vulnerable to volatile weather patterns.

"We have seen more frequent wildfires, more severe wildfires, more severe droughts, and more severe flooding," he says. "I mean, we've seen 'em all ... So when we talk about climate change, we are seeing the impacts of that."

He says simply letting the swamp go back to its natural form is no longer an option. Communities have grown up around the swamp, shrinking it from over a million acres originally to 112,000 today.

"It has completely altered the natural landscape of the Dismal Swamp. But they're not going away: The roads are here; the ditches are here," Lowie says. "So how can we better manage the water in the ditches for the benefit of wildlife and people?"

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Drain the swamp is a popular political slogan that doesn't work so well in nature. A massive swamp in southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina has been dramatically altered over the past few centuries by loggers and developers, and scientists say those changes have created an environment more vulnerable to both floods and wildfires. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, a federal project is trying to restore it to a more natural environment.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: To reach some parts of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, you have to hike through muddy roads or hop in an off-road vehicle like I did recently with a couple of Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Push the brake, yep.

MCCAMMON: The swamp is a vast wooded area populated with eagles, wild turkeys and even bears. Refuge manager Chris Lowie says water used to move more freely here before humans intervened. A new $3 million project is trying to reverse some of that damage.

CHRIS LOWIE: Well, the ultimate goal for us is to slow the drainage of the swamp. These ditches, 150 miles of ditches, have been dug throughout the swamp for the specific purpose of draining it.

MCCAMMON: Delores Freeman, a visitor services specialist at the refuge, says European colonists saw the lush plant and animal life here and thought...

DELORES FREEMAN: Oh, this would be a good place. We'll drain it, make some great agricultural fields out of it. None of that really worked for Mr. Washington and his business partners, though.

MCCAMMON: That would be George Washington. He quickly learned that the peat soil here made out of decomposing twigs and other plants isn't so great for farming. But the swamp's cypress and cedar trees soon attracted loggers, who built more dams and ditches. Freeman says those have disrupted the natural flow of water.

FREEMAN: And so some parts of the swamp are much wetter than they were before. On the other side of the ditch, the swamp would be much drier than it was previously.

MCCAMMON: That imbalance harms wildlife habitat and creates problems for the million-plus people who live here in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. When peat soil dries out, it's less able to absorb floodwaters and basically turns into kindling. In 2011, a wildfire started by a lightning strike burned through the swamp for more than 100 days. That's the kind of thing manager Chris Lowie hopes to mitigate in the future. On the other side of the swamp, about a 40-minute drive from where we began, he shows me one of the 14 new structures that are being installed here to help control the movement of water.

LOWIE: Originally, there was not a structure here. There was just a plug. This dirt driveway that we're standing on was a plug.

MCCAMMON: It looks like a metal gate built into a tiny dam with water running through a ditch on either side. Lowie uses aluminum boards to adjust the flow of water.

LOWIE: So pulling these boards is like pulling the drain plug.

MCCAMMON: Lowie can use these structures to rewet dry areas of the swamp or slow the flow of water when a major storm is coming. The work is part of a larger effort paid for with funds appropriated by Congress after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities along the Atlantic coast in 2012. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman David Eisenhauer says projects from Maine to Florida are restoring marshes and removing obsolete dams.

DAVID EISENHAUER: I think a lot of these projects work with nature to make these natural areas more resilient to impacts like increased intensity of storms and sea level rise.

MCCAMMON: Biologists say simply letting the refuge go back to nature is no longer an option. Cities have grown up around the Great Dismal Swamp, shrinking it from over a million acres to a bit more than 100,000 today. Chris Lowie says the roads and ditches, some centuries old, are here to stay.

LOWIE: So how can we better manage the water in the ditches for the benefit of wildlife and people?

MCCAMMON: Are you ever just like, oh, man, George Washington, why did you do this?

LOWIE: (Laughter) No, we know why he did it. We know why, but we learned.

MCCAMMON: Lowie says you can't stop progress, and sometimes progress means letting a swamp be a swamp. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Chesapeake, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.