When more than 40 residents of Coral Bay gathered Tuesday night for a meeting hosted by the Coral Bay Community Council, they were given maps of their local area and then asked to break into small groups.
Their task was to mark their favorite beaches and bays, and then to identify threats to the water quality – including dusty roads, broken septic systems, and abandoned vehicles leaking oil.
These sources of pollution might be located far away – even miles uphill from a pristine bay – but it’s well understood that perhaps the greatest threat to water quality is contaminants that wash down from hillsides and into the sea when it rains.
The term “ridge to reef” is now often being used to signal that everything from the top of a mountain to the sea is part of the same system.
The Coral Bay Community Council called Tuesday’s meeting as part of a process to update a master plan to protect the Coral Bay watershed. The council defines a watershed as “an area of land that all water flows across or under and drains to a common body of water, such as Coral Bay.”
Once the final plan is approved in 2020, it will allow the council to continue to provide funding to address specific, local sources of pollution.
There’s a fair amount of money at stake, according to Sharon Coldren, president of the council, a non-profit that began seeking grants to mitigate storm water damage and contamination from runoff in 2009.
The Coral Bay Community Council is now in the running to qualify for up to $17 million that is part of a $400 million FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant.
“When Hurricane Irma happened, and FEMA came down to deal with watershed questions and erosions questions, the first thing they asked us was, ‘What’s your plan?’” said Coldren.
Fortunately, the council created a watershed management plan in 2008 with funding through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That plan was updated in 2014, and the net result has been nearly $3 million in funding to install culverts, pave roads, and begin hydrology studies to see exactly where the water goes, among other things.
Though $17 million may seem like a significant chunk of funding, Coldren estimates, “At least $20 million is needed to resolve the road access and stormwater drainage issues in the Coral Bay watershed on the smaller secondary roads.”
This estimate does not include the major roads, including Route 10, Centerline Road, which provides access from Cruz Bay eight miles away. Major landslides and washouts following the hurricanes of 2017 led to the closing of Route 10 for days at a time.
The estimate also does not include any projects beyond the 3,000 acres of the Coral Bay watershed, which is only one of the 11 major watersheds on St. John. The Coral Bay Watershed Management Area includes three major drainage areas – Mennebeck Bay, Coral Bay, and Lameshur Bay. It can be further divided into 28 subwatersheds, including Privateer Bay, Fortsberg, Upper Bordeaux, Hard Labor, and John’s Folly.
The watershed plan now being revised will address problems in all of these 28 subwatersheds. CBCC is working under the guidance of Watershed Consulting Associates, LLC. Two of their staff members, water quality program manager Becky Tharp, and principal hydrologist Andres Torizzo, led the public meeting Tuesday night.
Tharp and Torizzo spent time meeting with Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials prior to the meeting.
Anita E. Nibbs, an environmental planner with DPNR’s Division of Coastal Zone Management, said the Government of the Virgin Islands is developing watershed plans for the entire territory.
“There are various plans on each island, and some have had more implementation than others,” Nibbs said. DPNR makes the plans, but they don’t have groups like the council to spearhead action, he said
“CBCC has done its part to seek funding,” Nibbs said.
Nibbs said DPNR’s focus has been on fixing problems like paving roads to prevent runoff, or replacing a culvert that has been compromised, rather than completing the extensive planning.
“We have done some small projects, like the rain gardens near East End Marine Park on St. Croix, where areas prone to flooding are filled in with stones and plants that can help with water filtration,” Nibbs said.
Coldren said the council is unique in that it is a non-profit with full-time staff dedicated “to preserving and protecting what people love here, but our work goes beyond technical issues. It also includes leveraging funding. Homeowners and neighborhood groups in Coral Bay put in their own money. The council offers permitting expertise and makes sure their money is well spent.”
Coldren and Nibbs agree that although other islands have their champions for this cause, they haven’t yet achieved the level of support that the council has.
“We can’t do for the rest of the islands what we do – that would be the tail wagging the dog,” said Coldren. “But we can be an example, and we’re happy to share what we know because we’re a few years ahead.”
On June 11, Nibbs said, the council participated in a webinar with local government agencies including the Department of Public Works, the Department of Agriculture, several divisions of DPNR including CZM and Environmental Protection, and VITEMA; NOAA; the University of the Virgin Islands; and consultants including Witt O’Brien’s. More meetings are planned.
The goal is to get people together to complete the kind of detailed planning that CBCC is now undertaking, then to create a “Reader’s Digest” version that is much shorter, less technical, and more user friendly.
Coldren said getting community buy-in has gotten easier since Irma.
“Stormwater is always staring us in the face, with erosion, roads washing out, flooding, and muddy plumes in the bay – those become good rallying points. But water quality includes clean drinking water, sanitation, and responsible management of solid waste and septic tanks, for a healthy environment for all of us.”