Editor’s note: The Lake Mattamuskeet Watershed Restoration Plan can be viewed by clicking here.
Lake Mattamuskeet needs our help. Covering about 40,000 acres in Hyde County, it is the largest naturally formed lake in North Carolina. It is also a national wildlife refuge that promotes migratory bird populations. As part of the Atlantic Flyway, it’s home for hundreds of thousands of wintering ducks, geese and swans every winter.
For more than a century, Lake Mattamuskeet has been managed to control its size and to foster productive farmland and wildlife habitat. Major drainage canals were dug to protect surrounding farmland and homes from floods, a system that worked well for generations.
Unfortunately, this North Carolina treasure is now in jeopardy. Residents know that times are changing in Hyde County, just like many other low elevation areas along our coast. Our tides keep getting higher and fertile farmland and woods are wetter. Traditional ways of managing drainage along our coast don’t work as well as they once did.
Persistent higher tides and extreme weather events are at the root of the problem with the county’s $160 million agricultural industry taking a huge hit as a result. When the tide rises, higher water keeps the lake from draining through its outlet canals to coastal waters, and for months at a time lake levels persist at record high levels causing flood waters to saturate lakeside communities and farms. Major flooding events like Hurricane Matthew and Florence seem to happen more frequently, and the gravity drainage system designed over the past century for the lake simply doesn’t function very well anymore.
The lake’s problems are also damaging the value of the lake as a National Wildlife Refuge. Avid birders and hunters appreciate that Mattamuskeet and surrounding wetlands are essential to ensuring the protection and conservation of migratory birds, especially waterfowl. Sadly, in the last few years, the grasses and other vegetation growing underneath and around the lake have died off, eliminating a critical food source and shelter for waterfowl. Tourism’s vital contribution to the county’s economy is at stake if we cannot address the environmental problems at the root of this issue.
Fortunately, their robust restoration plan to address the lake’s problems is a true team effort on the part of Hyde County officials, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local organizations like the N.C. Coastal Federation. My office is coordinating with them and closely monitoring their efforts, and it’s apparent they are truly dedicated to protecting the lake.
The recovery plan was completed in December, and it calls for taking steps to actively manage the lake water level, and for restoring the lake’s water quality and clarity. The plan includes a road map for how the drainage and flooding issues can be addressed for farmers and county residents.
Restoration won’t happen over night, and we are all going to have to work hard to find the local, state and federal funding that will be required to carry out the restoration plan. Recovery done the right way will be costly and take time. It will be an especially daunting task if we continue to experience higher sea levels and more devastating natural disasters.
I am committed to continuing my advocacy for Hyde County and its restoration partners to help them secure the resources that will be needed to save the lake, help our farmers, protect our homes, and to ensure that the way of life in Hyde County is preserved and can be sustained for generations to come.
Thom Tillis (R) is a member of the U.S. Senate, elected to the office in 2014. He represented District 98 in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 2007 to 2015. During that time, he served as the Speaker of the House from 2011 to 2015.