When GOP lawmakers opened up North Carolina’s wetlands for development, coastal waterkeeper Riley Lewis got busy organizing her neighbors.
Riley Lewis is concerned about flooding.
“[It’s] going to be seen all over North Carolina, but especially along the coast,” she tells Cardinal & Pine.
A local waterkeeper based in North Carolina’s coastal Carteret County, Lewis is intimately aware of how the state’s wetlands impact her life. They’re home to local seafood and serve as a natural barrier against flooding and storm damage. That makes NC’s wetlands essential—and at least 50% of them are at risk of destruction.
Lewis works with Coastal Carolina Riverwatch overseeing the White Oak River Basin—which encompasses eight types of wetlands, supports the state’s seafood industry, and covers the majority of Onslow and Carteret counties. She compares the state’s extensive wetland system to a sponge, breaking down water pollution and soaking up water from storm surges and rain that would otherwise cause flooding.
Prior to 2023, these vital ecosystems were protected by the federal 1972 Clean Water Act, which required developers to request special permits before filling or dredging wetlands across the nation. That changed in August of last year, when a new US Supreme Court ruling altered the definition of protected wetlands, putting millions of acres in danger nationwide.
While the North Carolina state legislature had the option to protect the wetlands here, the Republican-controlled General Assembly opted to do the opposite—passing the NC Farm Act of 2023 in June, which prohibits regulators in our state from adopting wetland protections beyond those at the federal level. That law now leaves 2.5 million acres of NC wetlands open to pollution, dumping, and development, amid increasing climate change-related threats.
“Up until now, NC had our own state protected wetlands that buffered storm damage, absorbed flood waters, provided habitat for important fish species, and processed pollutants throughout the state,” Lewis wrote on June 9, 2023, the day after the Farm Act passed. “Now, one million acres of wetlands are able to be filled and used as dumping grounds for developments and industry.”
Prior to the law’s passing, the NC Division of Water Resources was already receiving an average of 770 permit requests per year to modify state wetlands.
“This bill is the single most destructive action taken in North Carolina in decades,” Geoff Gisler, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a press release. “The legislature has abandoned our great natural resources, the rivers we depend on, and communities across the state.”
Now, Riley Lewis strives to help protect North Carolina’s wetlands by advocating for a change in state law, and by letting the community know what they can do to help the future of NC’s ecosystems and how they should prepare for changes to their everyday lives.
“[The wetlands are] our first line of protection,” Lewis says. “If we replace these wetlands with hardened structures like homes and roads, all that water is going to end up just sitting there…it’s going to make flooding incredibly worse.”
Becoming a Water Quality Advocate
North Carolina is home to nine waterkeepers who advocate for safe drinking water and other environmental concerns. They’re connected through the Waterkeepers Carolina advocacy group, with each serving as an ecological expert and resource for their regional community. They’re also highly qualified experts in the field.
Lewis, for example, earned her Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy degree at UNC Wilmington and led citizen-science research on wetland and oyster health with Americorps in Wilmington before becoming the Coastal Carolina Riverwatch waterkeeper.
She describes her waterkeeper position as a dream job.
“I get to care about people, I get to care about the environment…and [I] have already seen local change,” she says.
Researching issues like water quality and flooding are essential to the job, but another key facet of Lewis’ role is connecting her community to the information they need. She hosts a monthly advocacy group where she teaches Carteret and Onslow county residents how to advocate for their environment and address issues impacting their lives.
One of the most important aspects of the group is the space it provides for neighbors to talk about their water quality concerns and help each other find solutions—including talking with local officials and elected leaders.
In her advocacy group, Lewis specifically encourages residents to participate in city council and county commission board meetings. Across the state, these meetings are open to the public and provide an opportunity for residents to speak on local laws, the budget, and proposed development.
“I’m trying to make sure that people have the resources and motivation to reach out because that’s going to be the first step in repairing [wetland] damage and preventing more from happening.”
In addition to talking with local waterkeepers, joining citizen-led research, and participating in wetland clean-ups, North Carolinians can get involved with their town’s ordinance plans, making calls and attending meetings to be a voice for prioritizing water quality and sustainable development.
Maintaining the health of these ecosystems is “not a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Lewis. “A lot of it comes down to the ordinances within a community, what their land-use plan looks like, and what the community members actually want.”
There is strength in numbers when communities are armed with the knowledge and resources to protect their wetlands, she says.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be talking to your neighbors, talking to your local commissioners, reaching out to your legislators, and sharing your opinion,” says Lewis.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Riley Lewis in the headline. Cardinal & Pine regrets the error.]
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