Special Reports

Failures 'surprise and embarrass' state

Two state audits of environmental restoration sites, which are intended to offset water pollution caused by development, found failing projects and a general lack of accountability.

Roughly 1 out of every 4 acres of wetland restoration and 1 in 4 feet of stream restoration failed, the state Division of Water Quality reported in one of the audits, released last fall.

And the passing bar is low. The standard is not based on any scientific analysis of water quality, only on whether stream reconstructions held together and whether reconstructed wetlands were neither too wet nor too dry.

That percentage alone could mean that more than $100 million was spent on failing restorations in the public and private sectors.

Eric Kulz, one of the division's evaluators, said the good news is that the success rate is higher than it was 10 years ago. But he said the overall failure rate remains too high.

"I come home from college with a 75, my parents would kick my [butt]," he said. "Seventy-five percent is not good enough."

The audit found little difference among restorations done by the state Ecosystem Enhancement Program and its predecessor, the Wetlands Restoration Program; private companies known as mitigation banks; and the state Department of Transportation. DOT generally took care of its own mandated mitigation needs until 1997, when the first state restoration program began.

Other audit findings:

The Piedmont, which includes the Triangle, Triad and Charlotteareas, is the most difficult part of the state for stream restorations. The region's soils have more clay, which erodes easily under water but also hardens in dry conditions, speeding up the flow of stormwater runoff and making it hard for plants to survive. One solution is to mix other materials into the soil during construction, but reviewers found little evidence of their use.

The state and federal agencies that monitor these projects are only now developing databases to keep track of them.

The five-year monitoring period required for stream restorations after construction is too short to determine whether a project is a success. For example, a canopy of trees, important in reducing stream temperatures during warmer months, rarely develops within that period.

A second audit in 2009 by the water quality division found numerous problems with buffers on many state program sites. The buffers are intended to absorb pollutants before they enter streams and agricultural ditches, as well as absorb pollutants when the streams and ditches become flooded.

The audit found buffers that were not wide enough and ones that included parts of old forests that builders had claimed they planted. Buffers had been scarred by four-wheelers, mowed and sprayed with herbicides.

Marc Recktenwald, the Ecosystem Enhancement Program's assistant director of operations, later told a water quality official in an email message that he was "surprised and embarrassed" by some of the findings. He told his staff in another message, "This program simply can't afford [cost or reputation] to have something like this happen again."

The water quality audit also found that the program had inappropriately sited several riparian buffers along agricultural ditches. Stream buffers can be only along streams.