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By Pat Garber
Many years ago, according to a Native American story, there was a great drought in what is now Hyde County. The fields of maize dried up, the fish disappeared, and the wildlife left. Faced with starvation, the Indian tribe built a huge offering fire to the Great Spirit. It caught the peat bogs on fire and they burned for 13 moons, creating a huge depression. A young maiden pleaded with the Great Spirit, who sent rains which filled the depression, creating a lake. Thus was born what has been described as the “crown jewel” of Hyde County.
According to another theory, the lake was scoured out during a meteor shower. However it came to be, Lake Mattamuskeet is a beautiful and intriguing place.
The largest natural lake in the state, it provides great boating, fishing and crabbing in summer. During the winter it is home to more than 250,000 tundra swans, snow geese, pintails, and migrating shorebirds and is a popular place for bird watching.
It will be celebrated in the upcoming “Swan Days” on Dec. 8, with guided birding trips, workshops, educational presentations and vendors.
Lake Mattamuskeet is in trouble, however, with poor water quality, declining aquatic vegetation and reduced numbers of birds.
In 2014, the “Mattamuskeet Technical Working Group” concluded, according to Doug Howell, waterfowl biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and co-chair of the group, that “significant increases in nutrients and suspended sediments since the 1980s have caused an increase in harmful phytoplankton and a reduction in water clarity,” leading to the loss of aquatic vegetation necessary for waterfowl, crabs, and fish.
Fluctuating depths, high nutrient levels from fertilizer run-off and bird droppings, changes in salinity due to sea level rise, frequent low oxygen levels, and algal blooms often plague the lake.
To understand what is going on today, it is helpful to know the history of Lake Mattamuskeet. British explorers under Sir Richard Grenville arrived in eastern North Carolina in 1585. Led by Chief Manteo, they visited the lake and described the walled town of Pomeiooc, home of the Mattamuskeet Indians, near its shore.
English settlers began moving into eastern North Carolina about a century later, and conflicts with the original inhabitants eventually led to the outbreak of the Tuscarora Indian War in 1714. Afterwards, the British Colonial Council of North Carolina created the Mattamuskeet Indian Reservation in the same area where the village of Pomeiooc had stood about 130 years earlier. Over time, the Indians sold the reservation lands to settlers, who cleared the forests and built houses.
From the late 1700s, the European settlers wanted to drain the lake to increase their farmlands. The only project that effectively drained part of the lake was in 1837 by a gravity method, which reduced the size of the lake from about 110,000 acres to 55,000 acres. The remainder of the lake was below sea level and not suited to gravity drainage.
In 1909, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law creating the Mattamuskeet Drainage District, for the purpose of draining Lake Mattamuskeet.
Between then and 1932, the drainage district built the world’s largest capacity pumping plant and completely drained the lake three times, reclaiming its rich bed for agricultural development. During those years, writers in several publications described the Mattamuskeet Drainage District as “America’s most famous pump-supported land reclamation project.”
The project proved to be a failure, and in 1934 the federal government acquired the lake. It established the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, protecting 50,000 acres for migratory birds and other wildlife.
From 1935 to 1942, Company 424 of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked at Lake Mattamuskeet to set up the new refuge. In the 1950s, refuge managers removed 2.3 million pounds of carp, an introduced fish species which stirs up bottom sediments and creates turbidity. This succeeded in restoring vanishing aquatic vegetation such as wild celery, sago pondweed, and redhead grass.
Since the 1990s the lake’s health has steadily declined.
As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission and Hyde County, with support from the N.C. Coastal Federation and other partners, reached an agreement. In 2014 they created the Mattamuskeet Collaborative Team and the Technical Working Group. This team of stakeholders has developed the Lake Mattamuskeet Watershed Restoration Plan. Its goals are “to protect the way of life in Hyde County, actively manage the lake’s water level, and restore its water quality and clarity.”
The stakeholders will present the plan in a public symposium from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3, in Martelle’s in Engelhard.
Extensive information on this restoration project can be found on the North Carolina Coastal Federation website www.nccoast.org. Type Lake Mattamuskeet in the search box.