For more than a decade, Lake Wylie homeowners pleaded with Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and state officials to stop the flow of mud from construction sites that is choking Brown’s Cove.
Sympathetic regulators vowed to take action. Scientists probed the 23-acre cove’s bottom. Local erosion standards tightened. A plan to dredge the cove was drafted – then collapsed last year.
The smothering silt, meanwhile, only deepened.
Residents say the cove’s rust-colored water, up to 20 feet deep in 2000, is at about five feet now. The cove is likely to keep filling in, local officials say, as development continues in southwestern Mecklenburg County.
The view from Kim LeNeave’s kitchen window takes in a delta of silt that has formed at the mouth of Beaverdam Creek, shrinking the cove by a half-acre in just a few years.
It’s a vivid picture of the state’s most pervasive water pollutant – sediment – and one of its most intractable to control. Particle by tiny particle, washing off red-dirt hills with each rain, an estimated 4.3 million pounds a year reached the cove during the early-2000s construction boom.
“That’s the crazy thing,” said LeNeave, whose family has lived on the cove for 20 years. “They’ve spent thousands of dollars studying it – just not cleaning it up and protecting it.”
Despite its notoriety, Brown’s Cove is hardly the only lake cove choking on silt.
“It’s very common and actually more common than you would expect on the Mecklenburg County side of Lake Wylie,” said Sam Perkins, technical programs director for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “Really, it’s easier to find a cove with problems than one with no problems.”
The cove of Crowders Creek, on Lake Wylie south of the state line, has also grown shallow and formed a silt delta. McDowell Creek’s cove, on Mountain Island Lake, is clogged by sediment from heavy upstream development.
The problem at Brown’s Cove is compounded by the many construction projects that sent mud its way and the multiple jurisdictions that regulate them. One major player, the N.C. Department of Transportation, essentially polices itself and has refused to help pay for dredging.
City and county officials say only a lawsuit by homeowners is likely to fix the problem.
LeNeave and her neighbors, meanwhile, are drawing new lines in the mud.
The site of a much-anticipated mall, Charlotte Premium Outlets, drains to the cove and must be rezoned. Brown’s Cove residents plan to speak at a rezoning hearing Monday to publicly plead their case.
“It’s not a matter of nothing being done, which is tragic in my book, but nobody seems to grasp that they’re destroying the water quality of this lake,” said LeNeave’s neighbor, Jan Beasley.
Area intensely studied
Local officials say they may recommend extra erosion measures for the 82-acre mall site, such as measuring the muddiness of water reaching nearby streams and developing post-construction stormwater controls.
Climbing the bureaucratic ladder, cove residents also appealed last month to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees Duke Energy’s license to manage the Catawba River lakes. The commission has not yet responded.
The cove residents go armed with a thick archive of correspondence, photos and reports to document their 12-year struggle. They say they appreciate that many public officials have tried to help them.
“That cove is probably the most studied cove for erosion and sedimentation in the state and maybe in the nation,” said Mell Nevils, chief of the N.C. Land Quality Section.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services had the bottom of the cove mapped in 2003, 2008 and again last year.
UNC Charlotte sedimentary geologist John Diemer calculated that the flow of sediment tripled between 2003 and 2008, when construction peaked, from earlier decades.
A county report last July estimated that more than 31,500 cubic yards of sediment has washed into the cove since 2003. Nearly 20,000 yards – enough to fill six Olympic swimming pools – came from new sources of sediment.
The report detailed major construction projects around the cove. The Department of Transportation completed a segment of Interstate 485 in 2003. Work on the 1,070-acre Berewick community, which covers one-third of the watershed draining to the cove, began in 2004. Charlotte Douglas International Airport built a new runway in 2009.
The city of Charlotte oversees Berewick under its erosion-control ordinance. The state Land Quality Section regulates erosion-control at the airport. DOT oversees its own projects, although state or county water-quality offices can bring enforcement action if lakes or streams are harmed.
“From our work, we believe there was a substantial amount of sediment from development, and in the next 20 to 30 years the usability of the cove is likely to be gone,” said David Kroening, a water-quality official at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg stormwater agency. “It’s likely to be more wetland than cove.
“We would love to help them. We have done everything we can do.”
The drama of dredging
It became the state Land Quality Section’s task to divide the cost of dredging the cove – estimated at $387,000 to $615,000 – among a dozen land developers.
They included the airport, DOT, Berewick’s developers and homebuilders. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, which built a new elementary school near the cove, and Charlotte Engineering & Property Management’s two road-widening projects were also listed.
The airport held the largest share at up to $190,000 but readily agreed to pay, local officials say. Others balked.
“We talked with Duke Energy, with the regulators, and we had a plan that we thought was workable,” said Nevils, the Land Quality Section chief. “We got some cost estimates and pretty much agreed on how that cost would be shared, but found several participants who wouldn’t pay.”
Among them, he said, was DOT and some developers. DOT’s share would have been the second-largest at $69,000 to $109,000.
“There was no backing out of a plan,” department spokesman Steve Abbott said by e-mail. “The NCDOT did not reach a point of agreement with dredging plan proposals, therefore there was not a plan in place.”
Abbott said site inspections by transportation and state environmental staff don’t show that sediment flowed off the I-485 construction site.
But city and Mecklenburg County officials confirmed muddy water washing into the cove from I-485 in 2001, records show, and met with DOT about it. Transportation officials said they would investigate more effective erosion controls but wouldn’t agree to remove sediment from the cove, as the county asked.
Abbott wrote last week: “NCDOT has indicated a willingness to be a participant in comprehensive efforts to address sediment build up in the cove.”
Developer weighs in
The county report assigned 38 percent of Brown’s Cove’s sediment problem to the developers and homebuilders of Berewick, the subdivision that wraps around it.
Peter Pappas, of Berewick developer Pappas Properties, said the company took part in discussions over dredging the cove but didn’t agree with its proposed bill of $41,000 to $65,000. Pappas said that until asking about it last week, the company hadn’t heard about the plan’s status since last fall.
“We are willing to participate, subject to a fair allocation of costs,” he said.
In 2002, Pappas Properties, Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding to protect the water quality of Brown’s Cove and its watershed.
“Everything we have done as relates to grading and site work, as far as our company, we’ve followed all applicable ordinances,” Pappas said.
John Geer, the city’s water quality administrator, said Berewick’s developers have had some violations but largely complied with the rules. Excavating the steep slopes above the cove, compounded by storms that can overwhelm silt fences, has made it harder to catch all sediment, he said.
“All this development has been done with the current, legally required, typical erosion control measures, which are at best 80 percent effective,” Geer said. “When you’ve got 20 percent coming through the (silt) fences, that’s a lot of sediment.”
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County adopted stricter erosion standards for the Catawba River waterfront, including Brown’s Cove, in 2008. Geer said the city will try to apply innovative measures to catch sediment from future construction projects.
“I know they’re frustrated with the sediment from development,” Geer said. “We are working with them all we can to prevent sediment loss from future projects.”
But to fix the sediment already in the cove, he said, homeowners will likely have to file lawsuits against developers and homebuilders.
“It’s not my job as a taxpayer to do the government’s job,” Kim LeNeave said. “I don’t want any more development out here until they fix what’s already here. They had made certain commitments to protect water quality, and they didn’t do it. There are laws to be followed by everybody, including our government.
“We just want our way back of life back. We want our cove back. We’re just peaceful people and we want the government to do its job.”