What the Farm Act means for NC’s Border Belt, where flood efforts are underway

By Ben Rappaport


Stanley Riggs loves to spend his days on the open waters of the North Carolina coastline. He calls the shores of his home state among the most beautiful in the world and has devoted his life to researching and protecting them.

But the longtime researcher sees a growing threat to his beloved coast, especially in the southeastern part of the state: the destruction of wetlands.

“There’s no question that all the data strongly suggests that we’re getting more tropical rainfalls and more frequent and maybe even stronger storms,” said Riggs, a marine geologist at East Carolina University.

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Those rainfalls and storms frequently sweep through southeastern North Carolina — including Bladen, Columbus and Robeson and Scotland counties — and cause major damage from flooding. Riggs said that because of the way the area has developed, there’s less vegetation to hold back the water, making flash floods a consistent issue in heavy rain events.

Counties and towns in the region are spending millions of dollars to mitigate devastating floods like those brought by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. But Riggs and other experts say recently passed legislation threatens to exacerbate the problem by increasing paving, pollution and development.

The Republican-led state House of Representatives overrode the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday in a 78-40 vote to pass the Farm Act, Senate Bill 582. The bill strips environmental protections for 2.5 million acres of the state’s wetlands. 

“The provision in this bill that severely weakens protection for wetlands means more severe flooding for homes, roads and businesses and dirtier water for our people, particularly in eastern North Carolina,” Cooper, a Democrat, said in his veto message.

Riggs said he believes the legislation will increase flash flooding events because it allows for more development downstream, which means more impermeable surface causing those areas to flood. 

A family waits to be rescued from floodwaters in Columbus County during Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Photo by Les High

“Things are going to get worse under this new Farm Act because developers are going to see that land that appears to be good and dry until you have an event,” Riggs said. “You put concrete on it, cover it, clear cut it — well, then there’s nothing to hold the water.”

Proponents of the Farm Act say it will increase agricultural production for the state by exempting farmers from sales tax on composting, limiting penalties for cutting down timber near bodies of water and creating new penalties for animal waste spills on roadways.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican whose District 9 includes Bladen County, was a primary sponsor of the Farm Act. He said the bipartisan support for the legislation showed its potential benefit to N.C. farmers.

“I am disappointed to see that Gov. Cooper is allowing politics to get in the way of supporting farmers,” Jackson said in a statement. “His objection fails to consider our obligation to comply with federal laws and regulations.” 

Protections for wetlands are stripped through the bill due to a provision that North Carolina’s definition of protected wetlands should be consistent with, but not go beyond, the federal government’s definition. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in the case Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency ruled in a 5-4 decision that wetlands are not protected under the U.S. Clean Water Act unless they are “isolated,” meaning not adjacent to other bodies of water such as ponds, lakes, streams or waterways. 

The regulation Jackson refers to, the Hardison Amendment, is a North Carolina law requiring state environmental regulations to be no more restrictive than federal rules, as long as a federal rule exists. Under the newly passed Farm Act, the state cannot regulate wetlands that lost protections under the Sackett ruling. 

‘Looking upstream’

When considering the southeastern part of the state, Riggs said the Farm Act will create unintended consequences, namely more flooding.

While state legislation may pose increased threats, several municipalities including Bladenboro, Fair Bluff, Lumberton and Whiteville are implementing infrastructure plans directly aimed at mitigating the impacts of flooding. Efforts include downtown redevelopment, floodgate construction and raising homes.

“You want to get vulnerable people and businesses out of vulnerable areas,” Riggs said. “That means looking upstream.”

Such has been the case in Fair Bluff, which is in the process of rebuilding its new “uptown,” so-called because it is literally on higher ground than the now-destroyed downtown area. After hurricanes Matthew and Florence ravaged local businesses, destroyed buildings and uprooted homes, the town knew it had to make significant changes in the way it thought about flooding.

The commercial district on Main Street in Fair Bluff is mostly abandoned after Hurricane Florence buried the area in 4 feet of water in 2018. The Columbus County town is building a new “uptown” on higher ground.
File photo by Sarah Nagem

The uptown construction project is taking place on land in Fair Bluff that did not flood during the previous hurricanes and existed outside the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Map, which determines an area’s highest-risk flood areas. As an extra precaution, the town is also building all new construction two feet higher than the existing elevation.

“What Fair Bluff has tried to accomplish is if there are some things that don’t have to be in the flood zone, let’s get rid of it,” said Town Manager Al Leonard. “If there are some things left in that flood zone, let’s make them as flood proof as possible.”

Last year, Fair Bluff received a $1.2 million match from the state legislature for a $4.8 million federal grant, totaling $6 million to create its uptown. The town also received $500,000 from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to convert 44 flood-damaged business spaces into a 22-acre park.

Obtaining these grants, according to Leonard, is necessary to make any progress in the construction of the town and avoid a “terrible day of reckoning” when the funding runs dry. Earlier this week, Fair Bluff passed the fiscal year 2023-2024 budget with revenues and expenses at $883,895, a 6% decrease from the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

“What’s made all of this difficult is Fair Bluff is a very small town, Fair Bluff is a very poor town, Fair Bluff’s town government has no money at all to do anything,” Leonard said. “Our motto has been Fair Bluff’s recovery will go as far as someone else’s money will take it.”

Twenty years in the future, Leonard said he hopes Fair Bluff returns to its former vibrancy, and preparing against future flooding is a key part of achieving that goal. Along the way, however, he said it will likely be a “painful” road to recovery.

No silver bullet

The problem Fair Bluff and others are forced to consider is the inevitability of flooding in eastern North Carolina. Because much of the topography is relatively flat, hurricanes and storms that dump 20 inches of rain or more are always going to cause flooding. 

In both Bladen and Columbus counties, for example, all developments are required to be two feet above the base flood elevation level. And while the counties hope that requirement prevents most flooding issues, Bladen County Manager Greg Martin says it is far from a perfect solution. 

“These storms are going to continue to increase and we simply just don’t know what the flood level is going to be for a particular storm,” Martin said. 

During Hurricane Florence, for example, Bladen saw 35 inches of rain, so two extra feet of elevation did little to prevent damage. The tools available for the county, however, are limited, Martin said.

Gary Lanier, Columbus County’s planning director, said he believes local flood ordinances should require more than two feet, but amending the rules is a lengthy process that includes public hearings and approval from county commissioners.

“Now we’re dealing with global warming, stalled storm systems that dump water and just swirl around and don’t move forward,” Lanier said. “And you end up with 20 freakin’ inches of rain in a 24-hour period. There is nothing designed by man that was made to withstand that.”

Publicly funded infrastructure is often designed with 100-year flood levels in mind, meaning a flood that occurs once per century, Lanier said. But climate change is making flooding events more common and more intense, which he said infrastructure is not prepared to handle.

“There is not enough money if you found King Solomon’s Mines to accomplish what it really would take to floodproof our communities,” Lanier said. 

In the meantime, Lanier said Columbus County is attempting to implement best practices to minimize the damage. That includes larger drainage tiles in downtown Whiteville and moving substations to higher ground. Whiteville is also utilizing a study from the Coastal Dynamics Design Lab at N.C. State to determine how best to reduce the risk of devastating flooding throughout the city.  

That report recommended three key strategies: retrofitting the interiors of buildings, de-paving the downtown area and restoring Mollies Branch Canal on the western side of the city.

“Whiteville is doing a lot to fix this stuff, and it’s definitely making a positive impact,” Lanier said. “But I don’t care what you do, everything was designed for a 100-year flood. When you get a 500-year flood, you better pull out the sandbags and pray.”

Climate change hasn’t made hurricanes more frequent, but it has made them more destructive, research shows. So storms like Florence and Matthew, and other harmful flooding events are likely to become more commonplace in eastern North Carolina. 

Riggs said the increased frequency of these events should serve as a call to action to municipalities and residents alike to make sure they are prepared for the impacts increased floods may bring.

“People have to begin to understand this is an interconnected system,” Riggs said. “If you build here, there, wherever and stick a value on it and don’t understand the dynamics, then it’s gone. If you don’t have some leadership that’s willing to listen, that cares and will help to do something about it, then you’re dead in the water.” 

Whiteville firefighters remove two people trapped by flooding in 2016.
Photo by Les High