Special Reports

Stream repairs to get scrutiny

Top lawmakers say they need to take a deep look at the state's efforts to restore streams and wetlands because of projects that are failing, long delayed or too far away from the development damage they are intended to offset.

"We need to look at whether the result that we say will be achieved is actually being achieved," said Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.

In a three-part series, "Washed Away," The News & Observer reported this week that the state programs providing the restoration have more than 30 stream restorations that needed repairs, roughly 70 projects finishing behind schedule, and $92 million spent on restoration in places where there is little need.

The series also cited research from North Carolina universities that found little water quality improvement from stream restorations and showed the lack of effective pollution measures for Falls Lake, an impaired reservoir that provides drinking water for Raleigh and much of Wake County.

Berger said he was troubled by the number of sites that required six-figure repairs, the mistakes in design and construction, the admitted lack of oversight on the part of the state and the fact that there is no requirement to document water quality improvements for stream and wetland restorations.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, had similar concerns.

"The challenge we've got with it is, 'What practices are working?' " he said.

The state Department of Transportation and private developers pay fees to the state Ecosystem Enhancement Program to offset damage to streams and wetlands from building roads, shopping centers and subdivisions. DOT is by far the largest customer, paying roughly three of every four dollars to the program and its predecessors. All told, the state and developers have spent $400 million for state-generated restoration work.

Lawmakers previously have been skeptical of the state program. Two years ago, they passed legislation that required developers to first go to private mitigation banks that develop and build restoration sites, rather than have the state manage the work.

The program is also up for review by the legislature's Program Evaluation Division.

State Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, introduced legislation in March that would help the program avoid hiring inexperienced or poor-performing contractors. He said the legislation will be rewritten to incorporate some of the issues raised in The N&O's series. One particular concern he has is restoration that is too far away from the damage caused by development.

"Basically, the money needs to be spent where it does the most good," he said.

Berger said he did not think lawmakers dealing with a tight budget and a struggling economy would go along with legislation that increased the cost of providing restoration. But they are interested in seeing if the private sector would be more effective in providing it.

Bill Holman, a former state Environment and Natural Resources secretary and now director of state policy for Duke's Nicholas Institute, agreed with the idea of privatizing the restoration, so long as private providers are properly regulated.

Before lawmakers allow more stream restorations, Holman said, they should work toward figuring out what best works to mitigate the damages caused by development and then let the market determine how much it would cost. Too often, he said, they have let home builders, developers and others argue for lower fees, which then starve the restoration efforts.

"If we are a free market economy, then we should live up to that," Holman said. "The markets set other prices for construction like lumber, concrete and labor. The legislature doesn't set those prices."

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