A few hundred years ago, a pristine Haw River flowed through a Piedmont forest of towering chestnuts, white oaks, beeches, sycamores, and tulip trees. These trees provided a dense canopy, and supported an understory of viburnum, rhododendron, blueberries, wildflowers, and ferns covering the forest floor. These dynamic forests began to disappear as European immigration arrived in the region in the late 1600’s.
Two centuries of farming and timbering dramatically impacted the old growth forest and severely altered the river. Settlements and farms located along the waterways, and dams were built to turn gristmills. As the South became increasingly industrial in the late 1800’s, textile mills regularly used the Haw River to both provide power and dispose of waste. The result was dams and chemical pollution throughout the watershed. The impact of this pollution, along with sewage, fouled the river, making it unsafe for drinking, swimming, and fishing.
The advent of the Clean Water Act in the early 1970’s significantly helped the Haw River. This Act forced industry to at least pre-treat their waste before dumping it into the river. Unfortunately, the health of the Haw is still in peril. Our history of industrial waste, poor agricultural practices, and deforestation has taken its toll, and new impacts compound the Haw River’s road to recovery.
Today, the watershed is home to over 600,000 people, large agricultural operations, industry, urban areas, and second growth forests. As the population escalates, so does the pace of development, claiming more and more of the Piedmont’s rural land. The ramifications of this can be seen throughout the Haw watershed.
Development disturbs existing ground cover and exposes large areas of soil vulnerable to storm run-off. When this erosion occurs, sediment clogs rocky stream bottoms and clouds water. Aquatic plants and animals are then impacted due to loss of habitat and spawning areas.
More people also means more wastewater effluent in our waterways. This nutrient-rich effluent is linked to excessive algal growth and blooms, resulting in low levels of dissolved oxygen and fish kills we often see on the slower moving sections of the Haw in the warmer months.
Our urban areas themselves degrade the health of local waterways by concentrating the amount and rate of rain runoff. Rains can then cause scouring flood events and wash pollutants directly into storm sewers and waterways.
With better enforcement of erosion controls and a concerted effort to save stream buffers in the Piedmont, there is hope for the Haw River and its aquatic wildlife. Enforcement of federal guidelines to protect the Haw River, along with implementation of urban planning and sensible growth guidelines, would enable the Piedmont to grow while supporting the health of the watershed. The Haw River is currently threatened and listed by the state as priority one in need of cleanup by the EPA.