Keeping North Carolina's Haw River whole

Photos by Chris Fowler

It’s a rainy morning in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, and the sky is a curtain of gray. As I scramble down the hill behind the general store, my feet sink in the mud, pulled deeper into the earth. Soon I reach the river and find a spot on a outcropping to watch the Haw boil up and eddy as it moves past. The river is running quickly, pumping powerfully and methodically like a heart sending blood to the far reaches of a terrestrial body.

Which, in a way, it is: Flowing 110 miles from the north-central Piedmont region to the Cape Fear River, the Haw River and its watershed provide drinking water and recreation to nearly one million people living in and around Greensboro, Burlington, Chapel Hill, Cary, and Durham. Its basin occupies 1,707 square miles in eight North Carolina counties and is home to ten percent of the state’s population. But if the river is a heart, it’s not a healthy one.

Population growth and development have caused millions of gallons of wastewater and polluted runoff to wash into the Haw, leading to a buildup of nitrogen and phosphorus and creating large algal blooms in Jordan Lake. While North Carolina is required by the Clean Water Act to address the problem, the legislature has delayed enforcement of the 2009 Jordan Lake Rules—which require communities to reduce polluted runoff—on three separate occasions. (Most recently, in August 2013, Governor Pat McCrory signed legislation that postposed state regulations to clean up Jordan Lake until 2016.)

The river’s tenuous health hasn’t gone unnoticed: In 2014, the Haw was listed as one of the country’s most endangered rivers by the conservation group American Rivers, whose report highlighted the economic and recreational opportunities threatened by pollution. “That listing is primarily a call to action,” said Peter Raabe, conservation director of the Southern Appalachians and Carolina’s basin at American Rivers. One of the issues we were looking at with the Haw is potential rollbacks of the Jordan Lake rules.”

State officials too recognize that the Haw and its watershed are at risk.

“A recent drought, coupled with significant increases in regional population and development have raised the urgency of reducing pollution in the lake,” said Sarah Young, a public information officer for the North Carolina Division of Water Resources.

Which makes it all the more confusing that the North Carolina legislature isn’t willing to invest the money to do something about it.

***

Rivers create a sense of time and place, allowing us to understand the present through the past. The Sissipahaw tribe, which gave the Haw River its name, was the first to settle on the watershed, hunting and fishing along the river’s banks. When English settlers arrived in the early 1700s, they brought European diseases and warfare, which decimated the Sissipahaw population and scattered the survivors among the Shakori and Catawba tribes.

By the late 1700s, the banks of the Haw were flush with English, German, and Scotch-Irish settlements. Grist mills sprung up in places where steep creeks and drop-offs made for good mill races. But the rise of towns and mills destroyed local forests, and the area’s larger animals—bears, otters, eagles, and wolves—started to decline, then disappear.

The pace of economic activity only continued to accelerate and, by the early 1800s, three hundred dams blocked portions of the Haw and its tributaries. Looking for a way to utilize the cotton grown in the state, communities along the river erected hydro-powered textile mills in the place of gristmills; by the turn of the century, nearly a dozen textile mills lined the banks of the river. But as bustling cities and towns like Burlington, Graham, and Swepsonville emerged, the Haw became more than just a source for hydroelectric power and drinking water. By 1950, eleven mills and ten municipalities were dumping untreated waste into the watershed.

The waste dumped into the river did not go quietly: Residents remember the river running different colors depending on what dye the textile mills were using. Putrid and discolored, the Haw was no longer a place people visited to swim or to lie along its banks. Even after the state legislature passed a 1955 bill forbidding dumping in the river, powerful industries and municipalities managed to elude enforcement. It wasn’t until the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 that the dumping stopped.

Around the same time, construction started on the New Hope Dam. The idea for the dam originated in Fayetteville, where flooding from the Haw caused two million dollars in damage in 1945. Because the Haw drops rapidly upstream of Fayetteville, the dam would have to be built so that it captured most of the river’s water by the time the Haw passed a town called New Hill.

Water quality engineers across the area argued that the flooding would destroy thousands of acres of agricultural land and that the water would be of questionable quality. But the project moved forward. By the 1970s, it had been renamed to honor its most ardent supporter, Senator B. Everett Jordan and was completed in 1982. Then a whole new kind of pollution started.

***

The textile industry has long since moved out of the Piedmont, but the rapid population growth in the Haw’s watershed, coupled with aging pipes and infrastructure, has meant that millions of gallons of wastewater and polluted runoff have continued to wash into the Haw despite the Clean Water Act. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the river have created large algal blooms in Jordan Lake, threatening human and animal health.

But rather than enforce the Jordan Lake Rules and control the pollution feeding algae growth, the state has invested in testing technology for cleaning up the lake. In July, 2014, the legislature approved the use of 36 floating water mixers, which churn lake water to limit algae growth, rather than actually reduce the flow of nutrient pollution into Jordan Lake that causes the blooms. “The N.C. General Assembly decided through session law to test what they considered a potentially more cost-effective approach of treating the lake itself in lieu of controlling all the sources of nutrient input to the lake,” said Young, the Department of Water Resources spokesperson.

The new mixers have not been shown to improve water quality in Jordan Lake and a number have simply drifted away. But on April 20, 2015 the NC House approved a bill that supports introducing the same type of water mixers into Falls Lake, north of Raleigh. In a dark stroke of irony, just two days before the bill’s passage, a grease blockage spewed nearly twenty thousand gallons of wastewater from Burlington’s aging sanitary collection system into Service Creek, where it would join the Haw River and later be pumped into Jordan Lake.

The waste dumped into the river did not go quietly. Residents remember the river running different colors depending on what dye the textile mills were using.... Then a whole new kind of pollution started.

“We saw the deployment of solar powered circulators –which are a very interesting technology but don’t actually solve water pollution—as first step of rolling back those rules,” said Raabe, of American Rivers. “I think the listing has helped us raise awareness that the rules are not just about reservoir water; it’s about the entire river and the river needs to be a resource for the communities around it.”

Raabe said that listing the Haw in its report has led to the allocation of 500,000 dollars from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund to support the efforts of cities like Burlington and Greensboro to clean stormwater pollution from existing development. But 500,000 dollars is only half of what state representatives Tom Murry of Wake County and Stephen Ross of Alamance County originally asked requested. And it’s even smaller in comparison to the 1.3 million dollars the state has already spent to deploy the mixers in Jordan Lake.

That’s such a drop in the bucket,” said Elaine Chiosso, the Haw Riverkeeper and Executive Director of the Haw River Assembly. “It costs millions of dollars to upgrade just one sewer system. That’s been the problem with these sewer systems: They are aging and the cost of fixing them is quite expensive.”

But Raabe argues that while this first allocation may not make a major difference, it serves an important role in bringing the state to the table as a partner.

“When you’re looking at tight budgets, having the state say, ‘Look we’re going to put up some money’ brings attention to those municipal officials to say, ‘We’re going to put some money up too,’ ” Raabe said. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it does get the process moving.”

***

And, recently, progress has been made. In September 2014, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) negotiated with the city of Burlington to overhaul its aging wastewater collection system, requiring the city upgrade the pipes that convey sewage throughout town. In the agreement, the city committed to more aggressive system maintenance, prompt notification of any sewage spills and the completion of eight infrastructure projects—including the replacement of over 3,500 feet of sewer line—costing more than 11 million dollars.

“Our goal in the agreement was to get the city to commit to actually commencing and completing the projects instead of just talking about doing so,” said Will Hendrick, an associate attorney at SELC who represented the Haw River Assembly and Cape Fear River Watch in the negotiation. “Funding for some of these projects had been repeatedly requested by the City’s wastewater managers but never allocated by the City Council.”

According to Hendrick, the lawsuit targeted Burlington because of the city’s multi-year pattern of sewage spills—including a 3.5 million gallon spill in January 2013—coupled with lax enforcement by the state.

The state has consistently weakened clean water protections across North Carolina, despite development that continues to introduce new sources of pollution.

“I don’t want to speculate as to whether the city entered into the agreement altruistically or because of the threat of litigation,” Hendrick said. “I can confidently say, however, that it wasn’t because of the threat of state enforcement; even after the 3.5 million gallon spill, the state didn’t penalize the city.”

Because Burlington collects and treats wastewater from a number of surrounding communities, the agreement will benefit a number of towns along the Haw as well as set a precedent for enforcing clean water regulations. “There are those in North Carolina that are unwilling to let these ongoing threats to water quality continued unchecked,” Hendrick said.

Which is important, because the state has consistently weakened clean water protections across North Carolina, despite development that continues to introduce new sources of pollution. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) budget – which pays for water quality protection and enforcement – has been cut by forty percent in the last three years. And, in September 2013, DENR took the unprecedented step of rejecting over half a million dollars of grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency that would have paid for water quality monitoring. 

There is scant indication that the state will start enforcing stronger water quality standards,” said Hendricks at SELC. “Right now, we’re just hoping they leave important existing protections intact.”

***

The Haw’s story is one of struggle and redemption. And though there is still much to be done, there is a rebirth happening along its banks. The forests along the river now grow over sites where old farms and mills once stood, and many once-threatened species have returned.

It’s still raining as I walk away from the old mill and towards a ruddy brick building a few hundred feet upstream. The building rises out of a clearing close to the water, and its walls are lined with yellow and green kayaks. Letting myself inside, I find it warm and dry, although the smell of mildew—likely from the racks of lifejackets—hangs thick in the air.

Joe Jacob is hunched over his desk, his wiry white beard splayed across the papers he’s reading. When he sees me, he turns around, a smile spreading across his face. Jacob grew up in New Orleans but spent much of the last 26 years exploring the Haw—first as a director of science for the Nature Conservancy, then as the owner of the Haw River Canoe and Kayak Company. He’s getting ready to start his eleventh season leading trips down the Haw, and though he still won’t put his head underwater, he said he’s seen changes in the river—both good and bad.

“There’s a lot more nutrification because of the algae you see on the river bottom,” Jacob said. “And yet I feel like I’ve seen more wildlife that indicates a healthier environment. We have eagles up there all the time. And you hear accounts of river otters, which is an indication of decent water quality.” Jacob is fond of saying conservation is good for business, and, since opening Haw River Canoe and Kayak, his livelihood has quite literally depended on keeping the river usable. “To me, we exist where we are because of this river,” he said. “People gravitate toward water: that’s where people live and that’s where commerce happens.”

But with the textile industry gone, communities along the Haw have struggled to keep the river as an economic generator. “Because people moved away from the river and a lot of the manufacturing that was along the river started leaving in the twentieth century, it faded from the community’s consciousness,” said Brian Baker, the Alamance County Recreation and Parks director. “We sort of forgot how important it was.”

Baker is part of an effort to reinvent the river as an economic and recreational boon to the Piedmont through the construction of the seventy-mile Haw River Trail. Born out of a partnership between state and local governments, the trail will stretch from Haw River State Park to Jordan Lake and form part of the statewide Mountain to Sea Trail. Ten miles have already been completed along Haw River State Park and Swepsonville River Park, and local authorities have moved to conserve 1,300 acres of riverside property and 7,400 feet of riverbank.

“Over 300,000 people a year come to the Haw River Trail, and a lot of those folk are local, but a lot are from the Triad and Triangle and parts farther,” Baker said. “So the potential for us to make this into an economic engine for our community is significant, and I think we’re just at the beginning of realizing that.”

But the trail is more than just an economic generator: It’s also a way to get the community invested in keeping the river clean.

“Nobody’s going to care enough about the river to conserve it and keep it from being polluted unless it’s important to them,” Baker said.

Walking along the river’s edge, I see the proof in his words all around. Kayakers play in the water’s froth and a couple splits a sandwich under the shade of an overhanging tree. The river smells faintly acidic and I see a collection of plastic bottles abandoned in an eddy. But I can see in its rushing waters that the Haw is again a gathering place—for now.