Three photos show progress of debris removal in the Back Swamp Drainage District in Robeson County.

In flood-prone Robeson County, a push to remove trash and trees from waterways

By Ben Rappaport 

To Brianna Goodwin, there is no greater issue or bigger fear in Robeson County than flooding. 

So when Goodwin, executive director of the Robeson County Church & Community Center, had the opportunity to make a systemic change, she knew what to do. 

“There is this kind of underlying PTSD, worry and threat to our well-being,” Goodwin said. “It’s a threat to our infrastructure, to our emotional health — the threat of flooding.”

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RCCC spent $250,000 for a recently completed flood mitigation effort in a 20-mile stretch of Back Swamp Drainage District, which spans the Maxton, Pembroke and Rowland areas along the Lumber River. The project, which cost about $1.2 million, aims to restore the flow of water in canals that lead to the river by clearing debris.

The county partially matched RCCC’s spending, and the state contributed more than $600,000.

Three people stand near a stream in Robeson County.
From left, Osmer Lee Oxendine, chairman of the Robeson County Drainage District Commission; Brianna Goodwin, executive director of Robeson County Church & Community Center, Trey Winfree, president of Alliance Integrated Solutions. (Courtesy of Brianna Goodwin)

Stakeholders, including community members, elected officials and members of the Robeson County Drainage District Commission, chose Back Swamp for the project based on an assessment of which farms, homes and businesses were most at risk of flooding. The assessment, which was conducted by the drainage district commission, was approved by Robeson County Commissioners.

Many of the canals throughout the county have not been properly maintained, allowing fallen trees, overgrown vegetation and other garbage to block water flow, said Trey Winfree, president of Alliance Integrated Solutions. So heavy rain, like that seen during hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018, has nowhere to go but over the river’s banks. 

“When that debris piles up, it becomes like a naturally occurring dam,” said Winfree, whose company has been the primary contractor in charge of remediating the canals.

Goodwin said flooding in Robeson County has felt inevitable — a perpetual barrier to stability and an undercurrent to the persistent poverty and crime that plague the area. No matter how much infrastructure was built or how many community conversations took place, any progress could be wiped out by Mother Nature in a matter of minutes. 

But seeing the impact of cleaning the streams gave Goodwin a new perspective. 

“Everything that we do depends on our flood resiliency,” she said. “Without that, you can do whatever you want to but the flooding is still pervasive.”

Other areas have already undergone debris removal. Thirty-six miles of the Lumber River in Robeson County were cleared in 2019. Six miles in the Meadow Branch Drainage District were cleared, too. 

Tropical Storm Idalia left thousands without power and flooded dozens of homes and businesses in Robeson County last month. But Goodwin and Winfree said there was no flooding in the stretch of the Back Swamp that has been cleared, and water flow in the canals remained stable.

At the height of the storm, the cleared canals reached water levels of four to five feet. Just four days later, those streams had just six to seven inches of water. That’s a “lightning pace” for water to retreat following a major storm, according to Winfree. 

Robeson County is still feeling the effects of Matthew and Florence, which devastated entire communities. Florence alone caused more than $50 million in infrastructure damage, flooded more than 4,000 homes and displaced more than 500 residents, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

“There’s a lot of flooding that happened during Hurricane Florence and Matthew that ultimately could have been averted had rivers and the drainage systems been clear, and been able to flow like they were designed,” Winfree said.

A backhoe removes debris from a stream in Robeson County.
A buildup of vegetation and trash in streams prevents the flow of water – a bad situation during heavy rainfalls. (Courtesy of Brianna Goodwin)

Robeson isn’t alone in its flooding woes. Last year, the state allocated $38 million for the Streamflow Rehabilitation Assistance Program (StRAP). The program provides grants to projects that help reduce flooding and restore streams across North Carolina. Robeson County received $2.3 million in funding across seven different flood prevention projects.

The state funding was a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to improve drainage infrastructure, said Winfree, whose company works on drainage projects across the state. There was more than $300 million in requested assistance under StRAP, and it is unclear if the program will be renewed this fiscal year due to ongoing budget delays.

Goodwin estimates it would cost $2 million to rehabilitate all the streams in Robeson County. 

“The residents of North Carolina really need for the state of North Carolina to continue to pump money into this drainage infrastructure and flood mitigation,” Winfree said.

Since the 2019 debris removal project in the Lumber River, there have been no other mitigation measures, which undoes much of the work by allowing the debris to pile back up again, Winfree said. He said the state should fund a consistent maintenance program once initial debris has been removed. 

Maintenance would cost an estimated $100,000 a year for each of the county’s four drainage districts, The Robesonian reported.

For Winfree, this is personal. He is a member of the Lumbee tribe, which is based in Robeson County. He said it’s about being good stewards of the land he grew up on — land that has replenished him and his ancestors. 

Native Americans — mostly Lumbee and Tuscarora — make up 44% of the county’s population. Despite mounting threats due to climate change, many remain committed to staying on the land of their people.

“There is something spiritual for me to keep up the efforts of our ancestors,” Winfree said. “These bodies of water are integral to our existence. Being able to take care of it after it has cared for us for so long is a privilege.”

Removing debris from streams may not be the flashiest project. But Goodwin believes it can be a systemic solution to an abundance of problems in Robeson County. 

“Our people deserve to have the best shot against flooding,” she said. “Now that I’m losing sleep over it, I think other people do too, and get mad enough to do something about it.”

Three photos show progress of debris removal in the Back Swamp Drainage District in Robeson County.
Crews removed debris from much of the Back Swamp Drainage District in Robeson County. (Courtesy of Brianna Goodwin)