04/23/07 — Neuse on group's at-risk list for rivers

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Neuse on group's at-risk list for rivers

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 23, 2007 1:45 PM

The Neuse River was declared the nation's eighth most endangered river last week by a national conservation group.

And while Wayne County isn't the worst polluter, Neuse Riverkeepers said everybody within the basin shares some of the responsibility for the designation by American Rivers.

"It's not any one municipality making or breaking the water quality," Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Larry Baldwin said. "It's a community thing."

Riverkeepers are the watchdogs of the Neuse River Foundation. It is their responsibility to watch and advocate for the river. They agree wholeheartedly with the designation by the national non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring American rivers.

"The hog industry and the somewhat rampant development ... Those are the two pieces that put the Neuse on the endangered list," Baldwin said. "It's hard to quantify whether the development is as bad or worse than the hog waste, but the two of them are the one-two punch as to why this river is in trouble."

And while Wayne County is a major hog producer, its development hasn't yet reached the impact levels of counties like Johnston and Wake.

Because of that and because of Wayne's location on the river, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said that local water quality is actually in pretty good shape.

Not only is Goldsboro right on the fall line between the upper and lower portions of the Neuse -- Baldwin covers from Falls Lake in Raleigh to Goldsboro, while Naujoks covers from Goldsboro to New Bern -- but the 30-mile stretch of wetlands known as the Neuse Islands also acts as a natural filter between Smithfield and Goldsboro.

But, Baldwin said, just because Wayne County's stretch might not be in as bad a shape as Falls Lake or the Pamlico Sound, that doesn't mean there aren't concerns.

Nutrients are still being washed into the river from the runoff from the development that is slowly beginning to move into Wayne County and from the hog farm lagoon and spray field systems.

"Our stormwater is not treated in any way," Baldwin said. "It gets channeled through ditches and pipes and goes directly into the river and the pollutants in it are pretty severe."

And that, Naujoks added, is something that "needs to be of a concern to people in Goldsboro as we move into the next 20 years or so."

That's why, even though they're disappointed the Neuse has moved into the top 10, they were pleased to see it listed as endangered.

"It's a beautiful river," Baldwin said. "We're not saying the river is dying or is dead. It's a wakeup call to say if we're not careful, if we don't take care of this river, it's not going to be here for the generations to come."

To that end, he continued, he was pleased to see the North Carolina Senate take a first step and approve legislation to permanently ban new hog lagoon and spray field operations and to set up a program to help farmers implement newer and cleaner technologies.

"It's good, but it doesn't go far enough," Baldwin said. "That's not good enough. What we are asking for is a date certain phase out of lagoon systems."

And while he acknowledged the expense involved in the current technologies, he also noted that there are alternatives that have not yet been tested and that it should be the responsibility of the companies like Smithfield Foods Inc. to pay for the new systems, not the local farmers.

He also said he was pleased to see the nutrient offset fees for developers going up from $11 to $57 per pound per acre and, in fact, would have liked to have seen them increased even higher.

"I think that's definitely a good step," Baldwin said. "Right now it's too cheap for developers to come in and build wherever they want to build in environmentally sensitive areas."

He did acknowledge concerns of local officials and developers, though, saying that such fees need to be equitable across the state and not just levied against those counties in the Neuse River Basin.

A Senate bill has been introduced to delay the fee increase until September 2008 to allow time for more study.

Regardless, the Riverkeep-ers said the important thing is that people take stock of the river and begin to try to lessen or mitigate their footprints.