Water-control structures are culverts — large cement pipes — underneath levees. Removable boards seal the culverts off at different heights, allowing water levels to be raised as high as the structures themselves. Water is then directed across the peat bogs to “basically mimic seasonal flooding,” according to Sara Ward, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologist. “It’s fairly low-tech.”
Peat bogs trap carbon, which is a major argument for restoring them, said Brian van Eerden, Southern Rivers Program director with nonprofit conservation organization the Nature Conservancy. “Even though they only occupy 3 percent of the world’s land area, [peat bogs] such as the Dismal Swamp and areas in northeast North Carolina . . . contain the equivalent to twice the carbon stock of all the forest biomass worldwide,” he said.
And when they catch fire, clouds of carbon-rich smoke spread over communities. As well as razing vegetation, the wildfires burn underground, feeding on the peat, and make them much harder to douse. Only burning fossil fuels and deforestation cause more CO2 emissions than peat wildfires, experts say.
Restoring the North Carolina peat bogs has been the focus of efforts starting in the early 1990s and continuing piecemeal over about 15 years as funding became available. By altering the flow of water to mimic seasonal flooding, more than 20,000 acres of peat bog at Pocosin Lakes in northeast North Carolina have been restored, Ward said. The results were not instantaneous but the pattern has been apparent for about two full seasons, she said.
An additional 100,000 acres of peat bogs in Fish and Wildlife Service-controlled refuge lands in the Albemarle watershed, in southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, are still in need of restoration, van Eerden said.
According to Fish and Wildlife Service research, the project to raise the water table in Pocosin Lakes will offset the average annual CO2 footprint of 11,000 Americans, or 82,000 tons, every year, through avoidance of wildfires and erosion.
One source of inspiration for restoring dried-up peat bogs can be found in Russia, where Germany is funding an initiative of Netherlands-based Wetlands International, a nonprofit, to rehydrate almost 90,000 acres. Experts say it is the world’s largest peat restoration project and could prevent the release of up to a million tons of CO2 due to fire by 2015.