The eye of the Neuse
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 8, 2007 1:46 PM
Wayne County's relationship with its 41-mile stretch of the Neuse River is, at best, complicated.
For many residents the river is a source of enjoyment -- a place to swim and boat -- while some can remember its fish serving as a food source growing up.
Still, there are others who see it just as something in the background, an obstacle made easier to navigate by the many bridges crisscrossing the county.
And then there are those who are concerned, worried about the pollution they see creeping through its watershed and into its tributaries, which, with 90 percent of Wayne County draining into the Neuse, make up the majority of the local waterways.
But perhaps few embody the county's relationship better than Jewel Kilpatrick, former mayor of the riverside town Seven Springs.
"The river has played a big part in the lives of the people who live in Seven Springs," she said. "It has been very detrimental to us because of the floods, but to me, the river also signifies enjoyment.
*The Neuse has the widest mouth of any river in the continental U.S.
*The Neuse is part of the second largest estuarine system in the U.S. (Albemarle-Pamlico) and is the system's most developed river.
*The Neuse has a basin with one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S. Already it contains 1/6 of the North Carolina's population -- more than 1.6 million people in 19 counties.
*The Neuse is one of only three rivers whose boundaries are located entirely within North Carolina.
*The Neuse was designated to be one of the most threatened rivers in North America in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 2007.
*The Neuse River originates northwest of Durham where the Eno and Flat Rivers come together. It is estimated to be about 2 million years old and was first settled about 14,000 years ago.
*Early in its flow, it feeds into the Falls of the Neuse Lake, which was created by Falls Lake Dam in 1983.
*From there, for much of its route, the Neuse is a free-flowing fresh water river, bordered by swamp land.
*Beginning in western Craven County above New Bern, though, it becomes a shallow, slow-moving brackish estuary, ultimately emptying into the Pamlico Sound. It is there, where many of the upstream and local pollutants settle.
-- Information courtesy of the Neuse River Foundation.
"We've always come back. It's always been part of my life. It's part of Seven Springs."
The Neuse's waters have even been inside the small town, as during the floods following Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
"The water came into just about every house in Seven Springs. A lot of people moved out after that, but for some reason Seven Springs came back. It always comes back," she said.
Over her 75 years, she continued, just like her town, she has seen the river evolve.
Before she was born, she explained that it was often used to transport goods throughout eastern North Carolina, helping give rise to the town as a small port. As the river's bottom rose, however, people turned to it for more natural uses.
Her father, she remembered, like many others, used to fish and trap along its banks, both for their table and the market.
Today, though, the boaters and fishermen drifting along its currents are out simply for recreation.
But that's not all that's changed over the years, she continued. She has also seen the river grow polluted.
"When I was small, we ate fish from it and played in it. Now, I don't want to eat the fish and I don't want to go in it because I think it's dirty. Of course, it was probably contaminated then, too, and we just didn't know it," Ms. Kilpatrick said. "But there could be a lot more done to clean it up, and it could be done. I wish they would. If we could use it more, that could bring more people into Seven Springs."
Cleaning the river
But cleaning the river isn't expected to be easy, although most people agree it is in much better shape than it was in the early to mid-1990s.
Currently it is listed as one of American Rivers' top 10 most endangered rivers -- in large part, said Neuse River Foundation Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, because of the potential pressures it faces in the future, with more than 1 million people expected to move into its basin during the next 20 years.
"We've got to start managing this resource better," he said. "Yes, the river is improving, but we still have a long way to go and all the progress we've made could be quickly diminished if we don't manage the growth in this river basin better."
Right now, he continued, the top concerns are the ever-increasing development and agriculture.
The latter, though, local officials said, has improved.
"With the amount of regulations and education that have been put into place and the requirements that farmers go through, I think there has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of runoff and other impacts over the last 10 years," Wayne County Cooperative Extension livestock agent Eileen Coite said.
It's also been 10 years since the moratorium -- now permanent -- went into effect on new hog farm lagoon and spray field systems.
Since then, hog farmers, who have received much of the blame for the high levels of nitrogen and other nutrients found in the river, have been under a microscope with yearly inspections and meticulous record-keeping required.
"It's all about proper nutrient management, and I think we have done a good job," said Wayne County hog farmer Ron Craig from his 800-sow operation along Steven's Mill Road a little more than a mile from the river. "Farmers are stewards of the land. You better take care of it or else it's not going to take care of you."
And despite feeling as though hog farmers have had to shoulder a larger share of the responsibility -- poultry, livestock and row crops are not subject to the same regulations -- he thinks the new standards have been a good thing.
"What they did was weed out the bad apples, and now those people are gone," he said.
But when asked about the attempts to have the state General Assembly begin to phase out the lagoon systems, he protests.
"This is a good, easy, simple system for us to use," Craig said. "The new technologies are too cost prohibitive right now."
So until prices come down, or farmers are able to receive some sort of financial assistance, Ms. Coite said, most are unlikely to switch.
"This is their livelihood, and if managed properly, the lagoon does work. It is a waste treatment system," she said.
More of the blame for the river's pollution, they feel, lies at the feet of the ever-increasing development -- particularly upstream in the Triangle area.
"Agricultural challenges are easier to solve. It's a lot harder to solve the urban side," said Patty Gabriel, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wayne County's soil and water conservation office.
There not only does the river have to contend with runoff from construction sites and impervious surfaces, it also has to absorb increasing amounts of fertilizer from people's yards.
Additionally, more development means more people are pulling water out of the river for drinking and other purposes, while also putting more treated sewage back into it.
Locally, though, Goldsboro Public Utilities Director Karen Brashear said that because of the practices they implemented after 1997, she believes that the wastewater they discharge -- unlike in some communities -- "is actually cleaner than what's already in the river."
Still, Naujoks explained, as pollutants increase and water levels decrease, the pollution level will become more concentrated.
"I do think development is the greater future threat," he said.
But, he added, there is still evidence in the river's nitrogen and ammonia levels that agriculture -- in particular hog farms, where one animal produces 10 times the waste of a human -- still has a way to go.
Ultimately, he continued, it will take a sense of political will that hasn't been seen yet from local leaders to support development standards, regulations and best management practices -- like low-impact development that requires plenty of green space and wooded areas to help filter runoff.
The problem, however, explained Wayne County Manager Lee Smith, is that many of those proposed regulations -- like the $28.35-per-pound nutrient runoff fee -- are deterrents to economic growth and would increase the cost of projects like the proposed new schools.
Even worse, he continued, many of those regulations are applied only to the Neuse and the Tar River Basins.
"We're at a competitive disadvantage with other counties," he said. "I'm really worried that it will become cost-prohibitive to build in this area."
But, Naujoks said, the future cost of not protecting the river could be even greater.
"I understand that elected officials in places like Wayne County are worried about economic development, but you can't harm the very resource that's helping drive all of that. Right now, I just don't see the leadership saying that we need to manage this resource better," he said. "Just like people in Wake County and Raleigh have a responsibility to Wayne, the people in Wayne have a responsibility to the people in New Bern."
Enjoying the river
In the meantime, though, people are still using and enjoying the river -- even Naujoks, who said he believes it to be fine for recreational purposes, and actually wishes that it would be used more.
"I feel that there is a lot of opportunity for eco-tourism," he said. "There is more to the river than just assimilation of waste and drinking water."
In fact, he continued, the lowland run of the river between Smithfield and Goldsboro, known as the Neuse Islands, is one of its "most beautiful stretches."
"I don't think people understand that there are parts of the river that are remote and wild," he said.
If they did, he continued, then perhaps more people would be concerned about its future.
Fortunately, Tom Potter of Pikeville, the executive director of the N.C. Paddle Trail Association, has begun work to map and promote all 74 miles of Wayne County's navigable waterways -- all of which flow into the Neuse.
And one person who is sure to appreciate the efforts, is Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ben Walker, who said that after a stint here earlier in his career, he specifically requested to be returned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base because of the Neuse's catfishing.
"My idea of nightlife in Wayne County is catfishing off a sandbar somewhere," he said.
To him, the river is a resource to be treasured.
"A lot of people take it for granted and a lot of people focus on the negative. They hear its a dirty river, but they don't come out and look for themselves," he said.
"There are some places on the river you can hear the cars on the highway and the F-15s flying over, but then you can go around a bend in the river and not see anybody. It just takes you back. It's just relaxing."
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