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 over 300,000 Triangle area residents, and is a favorite recreation destination for 1 million visitors per year. The Haw River watershed 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. Read more about recreation on the Haw River.
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 (emerging contaminants) used in industry are not monitored or regulated, and end up in the effluent. The Haw River watershed has one of the highest levels in NC for unregulated industrial chemicals such as PFAS and 1,4-dioxane. Read more about industrial contaminants. 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 still 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 stalled or weakened under the NC General Assembly since 2011.
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. Nutrient pollution can over-enrich waters leading to algae blooms that threaten aquatic life. Approximately 2/3 of the nutrient pollution in the Haw River is caused by non-point source pollution. The Haw River watershed is also home to many concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) , primarily poultry, that can add significantly to the nutrient load in the river. Read more about CAFO 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.
We are leading advocacy efforts to educate and urge the Town of Pittsboro to enact stronger protections for water and forests as the mega-development of Chatham Park is built. This new planned urban development of 60,000 people and dense commercial areas is adjacent to the Haw River and Jordan Lake in Chatham County. Read more about Chatham Park.
New Pollution Threat –Mountain Valley Pipeline
The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is a 303 mile pipeline being constructed to carry fracked gas from West Virginia into Virginia. MVP has is working to get approval for an extension of that pipeline that will take it an additional 70 miles from southern Virginia into central North Carolina. The addition, the MVP Southgate project, will cut through Rockingham and Alamance counties, ending at a point just south and east of Graham, below 1-85-40. The Haw River Assembly is working with residents of Alamance and Rockingham counties along with Sierra Club and Good Stewards of Rockingham to oppose the pipeline. Eminent domain can be used by the pipeline company to force people to allow the construction of the pipeline ( a 100′ corridor) through their land. In the construction process of pipelines, easements must be cleared of all trees and plants, exposing the disturbed land to erosion and causing sedimentation in streams. In-stream sedimentation not only carries nutrients and chemicals into the water, but the sediments themselves drown sensitive wildlife habitats in nearby streams. The MVP Southgate proposed route must cross several streams and tributaries. Potential leaks in pipes pose ongoing threats to water quality for downstream users. Fracked gas is also highly explosive. Recent explosions have caused serious injuries and destroyed homes. By allowing this pipeline into our communities, we would tie ourselves to decades of fossil fuel use, resulting in high methane emissions and heightening our effect on climate change. Read more about Mountain Valley Pipeline
Our Concerns about 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 has not issued any permits for fracking to begin, we will remain on watch for applications. 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. Recent studies have shown that methane releases throughout the process of fracking and its transport are contributing to greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. HRA has joined with grassroots, public health and environmental groups from across NC to keep fracking out of NC.
If you have questions or concerns about pollution in the Haw River watershed, please contact Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper at email@example.com