The State of the Haw River – Past and Present
The Haw River flows 110 miles from its headwaters in the north-central Piedmont region of North Carolina down to join the Cape Fear River in south Chatham County. There are almost one million people living in this fast-developing 1700 square mile watershed which includes Greensboro, Burlington, Chapel Hill, and part of Durham, as well as smaller towns and rural areas. It includes Jordan Lake, a 14,000 acre reservoir that provides drinking water for 300,000 residents, and recreation for 1 million visitors per year. It is one of the fastest growing parts of the state.
Despite this growing population, a paddle trip down the Haw takes you through a river corridor with overhanging trees and many glimpses of wildlife. The river provides critical habitat for numerous plants and animals including threatened and endangered species of fish, mollusks, and wildflowers. It is one of only three remaining habitats left for the federally listed endangered fish, the Cape Fear Shiner. Jordan Lake has become an important nesting site for bald eagles and is a favorite place for birdwatchers, paddlers and fisherfolk of all ages. The Haw River has some of the best white water in the Piedmont, and weekends bring canoe users, and kayakers to run the waters. The quiet areas behind old 19th century cotton mill dams, and at Jordan Lake, are a favorite for flat-water paddlers. Hiking trails at Jordan Lake and along the new state and town parks on the river give urban dwellers a place to enjoy nature close by.
The earlier history of the Haw River is a tale of pollution from the river powered textile factories, poor framing practices that led to massive soil erosion and inadequate treatment of wastes from cities and towns growing up in this part of the Piedmont. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and subsequent NC water quality regulations made a huge impact in reducing pollution in the Haw River. The Haw River watershed is very much a part of the new South. The declining textile industry has been supplanted by a surge of new economic development. People have moved here from all over the country. Modern cities live side by side with an older rural way of life. And still the Haw flows on, through farms and forests, past abandoned cotton mills and new suburbs.
The Haw River Assembly (HRA) was formed in 1982 by a group of river lovers who had been on the forefront of the battle to stop the Army Corps from damming the river to form Jordan Lake for downstream flood control. The lengthy battle was lost, but from it arose this citizen organization dedicated to protecting the water quality in the river – and the new lake.
Threats to the Watershed
New development has brought new water pollution with it. A growing population has meant more stormwater runoff and wastewater effluent. Sediment is the number one problem in our waters, closely followed by nutrient pollution resulting in excessive algae growth. In this rapidly growing region, development is quickly turning vast expanses of forests into housing complexes and strip malls. At times, runoff from these construction projects turns the river orange-brown with mud.
Point Source Pollution:
Many cities and towns in the Haw River watershed, including Greensboro, Reidsville, Burlington, Chapel Hill, Durham and Pittsboro empty their treated wastewater into the Haw River or its tributaries. Although modern treatment plants are capable of discharging cleaner water than in the past, problems arise when equipment fails or when factories discharge unacceptable pollutants (including high nutrient levels) into the wastewater before treatment. Such failures can result in short toxic bursts into the river, which are dangerous to aquatic life. This source of pollution is a major cause of decline and extinction of endangered species of mussels and other river life. Excess nitrogen and phosphates in the wastewater provide nutrients for algae blooms. Many of the pharmaceuticals and chemicals in personal and home cleaning products are not removed in the treatment process and may be sources of carcinogens or endocrine disrupters. Another serious issue is that municipal wastewater treatment plants also treat wastewater from industries. Pre-treatment programs to capture heavy metals and chemicals only do part of the job, and many of the thousands of unregulated newer chemicals used in industry are not monitored or regulated, and end up in the effluent. All these pollutants also end up in the sewage sludge (bio-solids) that are land applied to agricultural pastures and fields and may be re-entering the creeks and river through run-off and migration through soil in stormwater events.
The total nutrient load in the Haw River and Jordan Lake from wastewater is contributing to the listing of several sections of the Haw– and all of Jordan Lake on the EPA 303(d) impaired waters list in 2006 and 2008. A TMDL has been written for the chlorophyll a impairment, but the waters are on the current list as impaired for pH and turbidity (caused by excessive algae). In 2009 state rules were finally passed into law to begin reducing pollution in all waters that drain to Jordan Lake –the vast majority of the Haw River watershed. These laws are meant to reduce nutrient pollution over time from all sources – wastewater treatment plants, development, agriculture, roads and existing cities and suburbs where stormwater controls are inadequate. Unfortunately, the implementation schedule for the rules has been weakened under the current legislature in NC for the past two years.
Non-point Source Pollution:
Runoff from the land, containing pesticides, fertilizers, metals, manure, road salt, leaking gas and oil from automobiles, and other pollutants are an important threat to the Haw River watershed. Sources of these pollutants, carried by stormwater, include farms, lawns, paved urban areas and roads, construction sites, timbering operations, golf courses and home septic systems. Non-point source pollution can quickly kill a stream by introducing organic and inorganic pollutants that can result in decreased oxygen, or poison aquatic life forms. Approximately 2/3 of the nutrient pollution in the Haw River is caused by non-point source pollution.
Erosion of sediment into a stream can smother aquatic life and clog the gills of fish as well as cut off needed light to underwater plants. Fast growth in the Triangle and Triad regions has meant an explosion of road and housing construction contributing to erosion problems. The Haw Riverkeeper plays a strong role in making sure our sediment and erosion control laws are enforced so that streams are not filled with mud. The popularity of golf course developments brings its own set of run-off problems when fairways double as waste water effluent sprayfields, inadequate for the job, and the chemicals used to fight pests and weeds on fairways and greens can runoff into streams.
New Pollution Threats –Mercury and Fracking
Other specific threats to the watershed include airborne mercury (which becomes methyl mercury in aquatic form) from coal burning power plants to the west. All surface waters in NC are considered to be impaired for excess mercury and the state has fish consumption advisories for specific watersheds including the Haw.
Fracking: Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) for shale gas has been linked to water pollution, contaminated drinking water wells, air pollution and earthquakes. The southeast area of the Haw River watershed is in the Triassic Basin where shale gas has been identified. Although NC currently has a moratorium on issuing any permits for fracking to begin, the process is in place to set rules and regulations to allow it by late 2014. The Haw River Assembly does not believe fracking can be done safely due to the inherent risks of injecting toxic chemicals deep underground; fracturing geologic structures that may have existing fractures; the enormous amount of water needed to frack; and the lack of viable options for the millions of gallons of contaminated frack wastewater. HRA has joined with grassroots, public health and environmental groups from across NC to work for a permanent ban on fracking in NC.
To view the Haw Riverkeeper’s latest slideshow on the dangers to NC of fracking click here
Go to frackfreenc.org for more information.
The Haw River watershed experienced an extreme drought that plagued much of North Carolina in 2007. Many creeks that feed the Haw were at historic lows, with no visible flow. Although Jordan Lake fared better than many other reservoirs (mainly due to the large watershed that supplies it, and less demand on the resource) it is in danger of being tapped by thirsty nearby municipalities. Local governments are eyeing all sources of water to try and continue the development boom, with little care for ecosystem needs. If fracking is allowed in NC this would be a new source of competition for water. With this area expected to experience a general trend towards hotter and drier conditions due to global warming, we fear we are only at the beginning of the water wars.
Copyright 2013 Haw River Assembly