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HomeCommentaryOp-edOp-ed: Management of Watershed to Protect Magens Bay and Related Ecosystems

Op-ed: Management of Watershed to Protect Magens Bay and Related Ecosystems

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

I. INTRODUCTION: Purpose and Actions Required to Protect and Manage Magens Bay and its Watersheds and Resources

The purpose of this issue paper is to bring attention to the dire need for management and restoration of the Magens Bay watershed. This watershed is degraded from the impacts of: runoff on water quality and coral reef ecosystems; and land management. There is a dire need to act now to address stormwater management and protection of the beach and adjacent waters of the Bay.

This Issue Paper seeks to lay out a way forward to develop a Watershed Management Plan that details strategies for the restoration and protection of Magens Bay and its resources. Magens Bay is a territorial treasure, one of the most significant economic and environmental assets of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This report was prepared in 2013, prior to the devastation caused by two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017 that severely impacted the natural and built resources of Magens Bay. It is hoped that elected officials and others reading this issue paper will act immediately to address the environmental problems cited and take restorative and preventive action to “Save Magens Bay.”

This Issue Paper is not intended to be critical of any governmental agency, the Magens Bay Authority, interest groups, or concerned citizens. Its purpose is to bring attention to and elevate or highlight the problem in an effort to forge innovative approaches/solutions and partnerships to improve and enhance the Magens Bay Watershed.

II. Issues

A. Magens Bay Beach and adjacent coastal waters, reef systems, and other marine resources have been negatively impacted over several decades and continue to be threatened by increasing runoff from upland areas within the northern, southern, and eastern watershed areas of the greater Magens Bay environs. There has been a volumetric increase in water flow and sediments from the watershed areas as a result of upland development and failure to institute measures to minimize soil erosion and contain sediment.

B. Storm water runoff from upland deposits sediment, debris, oil and other hazardous materials unto the beach and coastal sensitive waters of the bay. Upland development within the watershed and lack of containment of disturbed soil contribute to the increasing load into the bay. Creation of impervious (paved) surfaces significantly increases water flow as well. Based on studies by NOAA and water quality monitoring by NOAA, upland erosion, stream channel erosion and septic tank discharge have all contributed to the degradation of the water quality within the bay. As a matter of fact DPNR has assigned a status of Impaired Waters in accordance with the Federal Clean Water Act.

C. Whenever there is heavy rainfall, the sandy beach berm at the center of the beach break-open to the sea because the holding pond(s) behind the beach cannot contain the large volume of water being deposited. The holding capacity of the ponds have been reduced over the years by virtue of the increase in silt deposits. The berm not only is breached from the flow of water, but sediment is then deposited offshore, which changes the underwater contours or its hydrography. Watercourses and other natural drainage systems within the watershed are the prominent source of sediment and other pollutants. The two 2018 Category 5 hurricanes exemplify the extreme devastation that can occur when the beach breaks open and the stormwater flow exceeds natural capacity.

D. It is recognized that watersheds on St. Thomas have very steep slopes and increasing amounts of impervious surfaces, which can create high velocity runoff and erosion. The steep topography of the watersheds, when disturbed by development, can adversely impact areas in coastal areas and near-shore waters.

E. DPNR has achieved significant beneficial results from the administration of the VI Coastal Zone Management Statute within the First- Tier of the Coastal Zone and must now address development in the Second-Tier through the utilization of the Earth Change and Building Permit programs. Moreover, it is recognized that DPNR has no authority over uses within the Second Tier of the Coastal Zone except for land clearing and land disturbance. The uplands and waters of Magens Bay are within a designated Area of Particular Concern under the federally approved VI Coastal Zone Management Program.

F. The Department of Public Works should work in close collaboration with DPNR to institute engineering design of containment devices to prevent the flow of water run-off containing sediments and pollutants from public roads traversing through private properties into the waters of the bay. The present drainage systems provide for the rapid uncontrolled flow of rainwater through culverts and other devices, which eventually discharges into the waters of the bay without any sediment traps.
Particularly, in the upland areas there is a lack of meaningful and effective controls over the expansion of existing or new development by the permitting and road construction agencies of the Government of the Virgin Islands. While The Nature Conservancy and the Magens Bay Authority manage a large tract of land associated with Magens Bay beach and intend to keep it in its natural state, that is certainly not sufficient to ameliorate the problem emanating from a larger watershed area not under their control.

III. Recommendations for the Protection of Magens Bay and its environs

A. Short-range for Magens Bay; improve and develop holding ponds behind the sandy beach areas. This will require removal of sediment deposited in the pond(s) to improve its holding capacity.

B. Create a local technical council to provide pro bono services to devise a short-range plan. Immediate action should not require any long-term study. Implementation strategies should be devised with the Magens Bay Authority taking the lead with assistance from DPNR.

C. DPNR must take the lead in the preparation of a long-range plan for Magens Bay for the greater watershed area. This will require interagency coordination including the public, territorial, and Federal agencies that can provide technical and financial assistance. Develop a plan and implementation strategies, which could produce creative and innovative measures. The U.S. President’s National Ocean Policy, issued July 19, 2010, calls for Federal agencies to assist in this effort. Federal agencies that provide technical and financial assistance are: EPA, NOAA, USACE, DOI, DOT, USGS, and USDA.

D. The example of work being undertaken in Austin, Texas is offered for further consideration. While not a coastal city, Austin has a Watershed Protection Department. It has developed a stormwater Treatment Program which designs, implements, and evaluates engineered systems that reduce pollution in creeks, lakes, and aquifers. It’s facilities such as detention, retention, extended detention, infiltration, and sedimentation ponds have proven to significantly reduce downstream flooding, reduce sediment and pollutants loads, and provide debris removal which benefit water quality.

IV. Conclusion

Magens Bay is among the territory’s most significant natural resources and economically valuable assets, which require the highest level of protection. It is a world-class highly valued scenic and recreational amenity, which must be saved for present and future generations. Should no action be taken now and into the future to restore, protect, and preserve the quality of the white sandy beach and bay waters, Magens Bay’s demise will continue. It cannot be replaced or replicated, but it can be restored.

APPENDIX: MAGENS BAY WATERSHED MANAGEMENT PLAN

1. Watershed Definition: A watershed is all of the land area from which stormwater runoff drains to given surface water. Watersheds transfer and store water, carve stream channels, carry sediment from the hills or mountains to beaches and coastal waters. Rain water is referred to as water.

2. Watershed Management: Is a plan which focuses on land use activities throughout a watershed with the goal of preventing polluted runoff from those activities from reaching surface water such as stream, lagoon, pond, wetland or coastal water. It should, according to the EPA, describe and assess the water resource, existing management strategies, restoration and protection actions and expected outcomes of those actions for a particular drainage basin or watershed.

3. Magens Bay Watershed: Located in the Great North Side area of St. Thomas and which geographically includes the waters within the bay to a line extending from the outer point of Perterborg to Tropaco Point at Hull Bay and extending upland to include the land areas that drain into the bay located within the estates of St. Peter, Signal Hill (Mt. Top), Lerkenlund, Misgunst, Zufriedenheit, Canaan & Sherpen Jewel, Louisenhoj, Hull, and Barret, among others.

4. EPA has developed a Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans: See epa.gov/nps/watershed_handbook. EPA’s Office of Water (OW) promotes statewide watershed approaches to water program planning and management by providing technical assistance, communication and other facilitation services, and training.

5. Partnership Agreement for Watershed Management was executed in 2004 between the US Department of the Army (US Army Corps of Engineers) and EPA (OW) to establish a collaborative program to promote watershed health, economic sustainability, habitat protection and restoration while encouraging widespread community inclusion in the planning process.

6. Planning interactions among EPA, FWS, and NMFS are facilitated through legislation and interagency agreements. NOAA partners with EPA to administer the CZM Act, which includes provisions for planning watershed-based measures resulting in improved coastal water quality. In 2001, the three agencies drafted a MOA to formalize earlier integration of Endangered Species Act (ESA) considerations in watershed management planning for water quality standards developed under the CWA.

7. President Barack Obama issued Executive Order N0. 13547 on July 19, 2010, adopting the recommendations of an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force for the “Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and the Great Lakes.” One of its priority objectives is to enhance quality in the ocean, along the coasts, and in the Great Lakes by promoting and implanting sustainable practices on land. The President in May 2013 accepted the Implementation Plan of the National Ocean Council. This plan recommends development of Coastal and Marine Spatial Plans by regions of the U.S., including the Caribbean, by 2015.

8. DPNR’s 2010 Virgin Islands Water Quality Assessment Report to EPA, which was approved, indicated that Magens Bay waters are impaired. States are required to submit a report every 2 years about the condition in their surface waters under the Federal Clean Water Act. The law requires that there be a priority ranking for the listed waters along with Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the waters. TMDLs is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards.

9. NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program/ US Virgin Islands Coral Reef Management Priorities report of 2010 ranked Magens Bay coral reef systems number 7th in the territory.

10. In 2008, NOAA’s Center for Watershed Protection prepared a Coral Bay Watershed Management Plan as a pilot project for watershed planning in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Croix’s East End Watersheds Management Plan was prepared by NOAA & DPNR in 2011

11. The Coastal Zone Reauthorization Amendments (1990) added Section 306 (b)[g] on Nonpoint Source. It requires states to issue management measures for certain categories of runoff and erosion.

12. Section 306 (b) requires states to evaluate nonpoint sources and to identify coastal areas that would be negatively affected by specified land uses.

13. Acronyms:
EPA – Environmental Protection Agency
ESA – Endangered Species Act
USACE – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
USGS – U.S. Geological Survey
USDA (NRCS) – U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service
USFWS – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
FHWA – Federal Highway Administration
NMFS – National Marine Fisheries Service
NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Editor’s note: Darlan Brin holds masters degrees in business and economics as well as city planning. He is a former Commissioner of Conservation and Cultural Affairs Department and Executive Director of the Port Authority of the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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