The Endangered Haw River – Past and Present
Today’s guest blog about the #9 Haw River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Elaine Chiosso, Haw Riverkeeper. The Haw Riverkeeper is the voice of the Haw River, using the tools of law, advocacy, education, monitoring, and citizen participation.
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. 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 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 of overhanging trees— a hidden world of herons, ospreys, and turtles. 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 and fishers of all ages. The Haw River has some of the best white water in the Piedmont, and weekends bring paddlers out to run the waters. 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 history of the Haw River is a tale of pollution coming from river-powered textile factories, poor farming practices that led to massive soil erosion, and inadequate treatment of wastes from cities and towns. However, 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 declining textile industry has been supplanted by a surge of new economic development. Modern cities live side-by-side with an older rural way of life, and the Haw flows on— through farms and forests and past abandoned cotton mills and new suburbs.
But new development has brought new water pollution with it. A growing population has meant more stormwater runoff and wastewater effluent. In this rapidly growing region, development is quickly turning vast expanses of forests into housing complexes and strip malls, with construction mud turning the river brown. Runoff from the land contains nutrient pollution that adds up to daily assaults on the Haw River. This pollution flows into the river from farms, lawns, paved urban areas and roads, construction sites, timbering operations, golf courses, and home septic systems. Approximately 2/3 of the nutrient pollution in the Haw River is caused by non-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. The total nutrient load in this river system from wastewater contributed to the listing of several sections of the Haw and all of Jordan Lake on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 303(d) impaired waters list beginning in 2002.
In 2009, state rules were finally passed 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. But the rules have not been given a chance to succeed. They have been weakened and delayed under the current legislature in North Carolina for the past three years. It’s time to implement these rules to reduce pollution and to bring this endangered river back to health.
“If we care for the river, the river will sing. If we are careless the river will die.”