When Pat Donovan-Brandenburg first started working on the restoration of the New River in 1999, she had to wear a hazmat suit. 

“If you got anywhere near the water, you ran the risk of hugging the porcelain goddess for 24 hours,” the marine biologist said. “It was not pretty.”

Donovan-Brandenburg works for the city of Jacksonville, nestled at the top of the river in Onslow County. The town’s wastewater treatment facility had been built in 1940, when the population was 873. But when Camp Lejeune opened and wartime defense projects ramped up, the population grew quickly. By 2000, it was around 66,000.

The city’s wastewater infrastructure couldn’t keep up. While it removed viruses and bacteria, nutrients like ammonias, phosphates, and nitrates were being discharged directly into the New River. The buildup depleted oxygen levels, leading to algal blooms and fish kills. A thriving source of wildlife and recreation became so polluted that it was closed to the public by the early 1980s. 

The river was in crisis for more than a decade before a hog lagoon breach let loose 25 million gallons of waste into the waterway in 1995. “There were all kinds of news reporters flying over in helicopters and watching this huge plume as it moved down the river,” Donovan-Brandenburg recalled. But concerns about a massive wildlife die-off didn’t happen—because there were no fish left to kill.

It did serve as a wake up call. That wastewater facility was shut down and replaced with a more modern system. And the city partnered with N.C. State University scientists to restore the New River.

YouTube video

Among the efforts was a novel project to use artificial oyster reefs to filter out heavy pollutants and nutrients. Oysters eat by filtering water, adding any pollutants present to their shells and tissues. In a lab setting, a fully grown oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. And while these oysters shouldn’t be consumed by humans, their presence in great numbers supports the food chain by attracting fish and providing habitat for other marine organisms.

There was some initial skepticism, but it worked; the river was reopened to commercial fishing and recreational uses in 2001. 

The project has continued to evolve. “With any restoration, you learn how to do it better and you keep going,” said Donovan-Brandenburg. Now she’s working on a highway of oyster reefs that can continue to provide a robust habitat and a flow of clean water for years to come.

Clockwise from top left: Pat Donovan-Brandenburg and her team move seeded oyster paddies onto a new reef in April 2019. // The greater Jacksonville wastewater treatment facility operating in the 1970s. // An aeration machine stirs up dissolved oxygen in Wilson Bay in 2000. // Donovan-Brandenburg works in her office at the former wastewater treatment facility. // A view of Donovan-Brandenburg from underwater, beside an oyster reef near Camp Lejeune. // Donovan-Brandenburg poses for a picture with an oyster on May 24, 2018. (Archival photos courtesy of City of Jacksonville, Media Services. Current photos by Julia Wall of The Assembly)

That now includes 12 reefs, and by the end of 2023, each reef will span an acre of the waterway. They’re also still collecting data on what the river needs. “We still monitor, because things could happen,” she said.

Now people fish, swim, kayak, and learn along the New River once again. Pods of dolphins, cownose rays, and bald eagles are just some of the coastal wetland creatures that have returned to a place that used to be devoid of life.

“We can thrive, we human beings, as long as we continue to strive through science to always improve where our footprint was,” said Donovan-Brandenburg. 

Julia Wall is The Assembly‘s lead producer and videographer. She grew up in Wilmington, N.C. and earned a degree in photojournalism from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013. She previously spent five years on staff at The News & Observer.