Carolina bays are a type of elliptical or oval freshwater depressional wetland that fill with rainwater and may be periodically dry. They are most commonly found in North and South Carolina, but can also be found from Florida to New Jersey. Carolina bays vary in size from a few hundred feet in length to nearly 5 miles long.

Despite their name, Carolina bays are different than estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay or Bristol Bay in Alaska. Perhaps more familiar to many of us, places like the Chesapeake Bay refer to the area where a freshwater river or stream meets the ocean.

What’s Important About Carolina Bays?

Playa lakes and prairie potholes aren’t the only kinds of so-called “geographically isolated” wetlands that may be small in size, but have big impacts on the local environment and health of waters downstream. Like other depressional wetlands, Carolina bays help to store and slow floodwaters.

Despite a typical lack of surface connection to other waters, they are often found close together or to open waters and can connect to other waters during heavy rain and flooding events. Carolina bays provide habitat for frogs, salamanders, and even endemic species of fish. Regional experts estimate that 97 percent of Carolina bays in South Carolina have been impacted by agriculture, logging, or a combination of both.

Although most Carolina bays are much smaller, Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina stretches across 9,000 acres with 14 miles of shoreline at the headwaters of the Waccamaw River. It is home to native fish and plants that can only be found in or around the lake. Camping and boating along the lake in Lake Waccamaw State Park attracts many visitors every year. In fact, the number of visitors to the park increased by 53 percent in 2012.

Are Carolina Bays Protected Under The Clean Water Act?

Probably not right now. Because Carolina bays are considered “geographically isolated” wetlands, they are unlikely to be currently protected under the Clean Water Act. Carolina bays are similar to prairie potholes and playa lakes in that they may be located outside or a floodplain or lack a clear surface connection to downstream waters. However, these types of waters can provide critical habitat and capture floodwaters to reduce flooding downstream.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers are working to clarify what types of waters are – and are not- protected under the Clean Water Act.

Under the proposed rule, Carolina bays could be covered if there is a significant connection to downstream waters. In other words, a Carolina bay could be protected if it, in combination with similar waters, would have a more than speculative effect on the biological, physical, or chemical integrity of downstream protected waters.