Turn off the sound: Eagle Island: Value and Opportunity

Hanover and Brunswick are blessed with beautiful natural areas with a temperate climate and abundant natural resources.

These are among the important reasons that led to the boom of our population, the growth of the economy, and the record influx of tourists. Tourism expenditures set a record in 2021. Brunswick and New Hanover counties received $975.1 and $930.4 million, respectively, ranking sixth and seventh in revenue by county in North Carolina. These dollars support jobs and related businesses, feed beaches, and add tax revenue.

However, growth has some negative consequences. Population growth and development have increased the demand for infrastructure. But it has also led to ecosystem stress, and often to the loss of green spaces. Once they are weakened or lost, their economic values ​​decline.

Natural areas/green spaces are economic drivers. They provide the community with abundant recreational and aesthetic benefits while providing many invaluable ecosystem services including flood water storage, storm water mitigation, and storm fenders, which are highly productive ecosystems that provide primary productivity and carbon storage.
New Hanover and Brunswick have protected some areas and they should be given credit for this work, but we have an opportunity to be better stewards of important tracts of land that benefit the area in multiple ways. Conserving Eagles Island is one of many opportunities to protect an important natural area in our community.

Eagles Island consists of 3,110 acres, with to the south, approximately 1,500 acres dedicated to storing dredge materials spoiling from the Cape Fear River. The rest is mostly undeveloped and owned by a mix of private and government entities.

The island is surrounded by the Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers which provide essential nursery grounds for many species of finfish, including the endangered Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeon. The island consists mainly of swamps with small islands that spoil in the highlands. Wetlands are highly productive and biodiversity ecosystems.

Eagles Island is also of historical interest to our region with its past rice culture (the Jella Jichi heritage), the marine warehouse industry, and the rich maritime history that has been and continues to be important to the growth of Wilmington and the region. The following references provide details of the above information:
• Island of Eagles: Landscape History
• Eagle Island Natural Park
• Eagle Island update (YouTube video)

You undoubtedly ask, what’s the problem if Eagles Island is mostly an undeveloped area? For Eagles Island and other areas, the answer is that the development pressure is real and growing, and we have limited natural areas left in the province of New Hanover; Brunswick County is developing more rapidly. On Eagles Island, development ideas include proposals for mixed uses as well as a proposed hotel and spa south of the USS North Carolina warship. And while Unique Places to Save is trying to purchase this space, it is important that we highlight the issues and make better use of our land.

I think the New Hanover County Planning Department’s Limited Use Scenario is best suited to Eagles Island. In fact, the Eagles Island Task Force has a plan that reflects this scenario with ecotourism opportunities and a low-impact education center that would complement our North Carolina treasure – the USS North Carolina Battleship.

Why is this the best plan? There are two main reasons.

First, there is the conservation of an important natural area that helps store and isolate flood waters which can also provide ecotourism benefits such as hiking, biking, birding, and kayaking. In addition, the educational site highlights the culture and history of our region. Imagine a destination site for a day full of history, culture, education and ecotourism. The community, schools, and state will have a valuable natural park and visiting tourists will support local businesses with food and lodging. Spend the day, stay the night and more!

Another reason to reduce development is water. The waters make Eagle Island special but also dangerous. Eagle Island, and most of the West Bank, is in a compound flood zone, which means there are multiple sources of flooding including river flooding from upstream, storm surge and rising floods moving over the river, and local precipitation with rainwater runoff.

We have seen several storm-related flood events including Hurricanes Floyd, Matthew, Florence and Isaias. But we also have flood events that are not related to storms.

The 10th largest flood measured on Eagles Island was caused by a high tidal flood and onshore winds on January 3, 2022. Water levels reached more than 2 feet above normal. This mild flood event inundated the roads in and around the barge as well as at Point Peter.

Please note that this will be the daily scenario in the coming decades based on NOAA’s projections of sea level rise.

A high tide flood is shown on the USS North Carolina Road near the Battleship North Carolina on January 3, 2002 (Photo by Roger Shaw)

Other factors related to the significant development of Eagles Island: the spread of wetland soils, the acceleration of sea level rise, the increased number of flood days at high tide, and the rising waters. These issues lead to several management and safety concerns for large developments in this floodplain. In fact, the New Hanover County Uniform Development Act (Section 9) clearly states their concerns about public health and safety in these floodplains and is intended to reduce public and private losses due to flooding in flood-prone areas.

The water will come. We need to learn to live with it as a barge does rather than conflict with it. I ask that we consider the concept of the Limited Use Plan and relate it to the Eagles Island Task Force’s vision of a low impact nature park, which will be a great asset to our region and a source of pride for years to come. Will be win over for the region.

Roger Shaw is Professor of Geology and Oceanography at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is a member of the Eagles Island Task Force.

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