Demolish The Dams

As a small boy growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, California during the 1950s, I was among the first generation to be entranced by television. I vicariously enjoyed the adventures of the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. With my playmates I did my best to imitate their behaviors. Often I would see them drink directly from the streams that ran through the great Western lands they roamed doing their good deeds. Streams didn’t run through my neighborhood, but runoff from lawns and car washing filled gutters below the concrete curbs parallel to the asphalt. It looked enough like a stream to me, so I drank from it.

Yeccch! Once I almost sucked up a worm. That was the end of that.

As age and experience increased my ability to range far from my suburban home, I traveled to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. High in the Western Sierras one could indeed drink without fear from the pristine headwaters of many rivers. Around Lake Tahoe I would make it a point to hike to where ice melted into clear pools of crystal pure, life-giving water.

Once upon a time I’ve been told, the rivers of the Chatham ran clear because of nature’s own filtration system, the mussel. Good god, he’s on about the mussels again, you might say. Yes, I am. The Rocky River and her cousins the Haw and Deep are now the color of strong black tea from so many years of abuse that the collective memory of their former cleanliness has died. The mussels in Chatham’s rivers were once so numerous that they had nicknames like the Carolina Heelsplitter because you couldn’t venture into the river without stepping on them.

In a recent conversation with local biologist, John Alderman, I learned that one of the mussels once so numerous in the Rocky River, the Atlantic Pig Toe, listed as endangered, can no longer be found below Siler City’s waste water discharge into Love’s Creek (one of the Rocky’s main tributaries) to Woody’s Dam. The variety and number of many species decreases below this point. Once the home range of the Cape Fear Shiner Minnow, the little fish has now been extirpated. Though further study needs to be conducted, Alderman has a “sneaking suspicion” that Siler City sewer discharges are responsible for killing animals essential to the health of the river. Not much further down the river, Sanford draws its drinking water from the Deep River below its confluence with the Rocky.


According to Alderman many of North Carolina’s pigs and chickens drink virgin well water while humans drink the treated effluent of our neighbors upstream. That shows you what our state values.

I propose that Siler City begin drawing on Chatham County’s water supply from Jordan Lake. Demolish the dam in Siler City and restore the Rocky , a nationally significant river. The Rocky River is a “flash” river, meaning that it is cleansed when swollen with rainfall. After the rain the river drops back to low levels. Damming such a delicately balanced river dependent on strict natural processes is a death sentence!

Siler City, already in financial difficulty, is about $16 million in debt because of money borrowed to expand its reservoir. This dam makes no fiscal or environmental sense, yet the inertia of such an ill-fated project keeps the present idiotic plan in place. That money would be better spent cleaning up its killer sewer discharges

There has been some talk among Chatham County Commissioners about providing Siler City with Lake Jordan water, but it hasn’t gone much further than that. The pipes to convey the water are already in the ground, so what’s the hold up?

Can you imagine the Rocky River clear enough to see the bottom filled with tiny, powerful mussels filtering the river for free? Can you imagine bathing in and drinking from our rivers once again without fear? Can you imagine how your heart would swell with pride when you hold the hands of your grandchildren and tell them how this generation made and kept a commitment to their future? Can you imagine the economic value that such a river would have?

If Siler City had such a Rocky River running through it, the benefits would be innumerable. For example, the town would immediately save money by not having to process drinking water. The poor quality water from the Rocky, resulting in toxic trihalomethanes, would be replaced by healthier quality water from Jordan Lake.

Again, Chatham County is positioned to set a better standard for its citizens. Surely we deserve water as good as pigs and chickens get. It’s past time that citizens, private and public defended our life support systems.

“Water has a voice. It carries a message that tells those downstream who you are and how you care for the land.” — Bernie McGurl

What tale will the Rocky River tell about you Chatham?


Draft Rules/Storm Water

As those of you who’ve perused this column in the past know, I often focus on the challenges facing our water resources in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin . Lake Jordan, the Haw River, Deep River, Rocky River and all their tributaries from counties around make up this system. Many nationally significant natural areas and endangered species knit this wonder together. As my understanding of this complex marvel of creation grows, I am compelled to share it.

A few days ago, the North Carolina Rules Review Committee, in a 4-3 vote, narrowly approved the long-awaited draft rules to begin cleaning up Jordan Lake and its tributaries. Although this is a momentous milestone in the process, some heavy legislative lifting remains to implement the rules. As shameful and unbelievable as it may be, diluting the strength of the rules will be a priority of some state senators and representatives, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Jordan Lake is chronically challenged by several different sources of pollution. Tons of sediment from construction sites, farms and storm water drains wash into the river every year and smother fish and other aquatic organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous feed algal blooms that suck up oxygen, again pushing many species toward endangerment or extinction. Sewage sludge, containing an unknown witches brew of toxic chemicals , masquerades as agricultural fertilizer also finds its way into our drinking water source. In the “other” category of pollutants leaching into our water are pharmaceuticals, automotive waste, and pesticides, the quantities of which no one could venture even an educated guess.

Nearly a million people live in and around the watershed; and that number is predicted to increase by many more thousands in the near future. Increased population will only intensify current problems unless the Jordan Lake Draft Rules are implemented and strengthened.

In a recent interview with Haw River Assembly Executive Director, Elaine Chiosso, I could hear relief in her voice at the approval of the rules. I also heard weariness and apprehension. Ms. Chiosso and legions of committed citizens have worked for years against daunting adversaries for the integrity of our life-support systems. Who could be against clean water you might ask?

As you might imagine, powerful industrial and municipal players have fought against doing anything to clean up their pollution to ensure that neighbors downstream have clean water as well. Resistance from Greensboro, Burlington and Durham has been a regular impediment to the process. Kudos to the current Chatham Board of Commissioners for being a positive influence throughout the proceedings. But perhaps this intransigence of the resistant boggles your mind as it does mine.

Of course, it boils down to money. But it’s deeper than that. Petty pecuniary concerns are rooted in the radical separation of human beings from our god granted, nurturing earth. Long ago we divorced ourselves from the intimate connection to what sustains us in order to transform earth, air and water into mere commodities to be bartered. In the bargain we profane and disable the very processes that keep us alive.

Once upon time, before our command of coal, steam and petroleum, humans propagated and passed down a sacred relationship to the earth. Before Columbus the Iroquois Nation considered the welfare of their descendants seven generations into the future before making a decision. For us it’s the quarterly bottom line. Chief Seattle, the great Suquamish chief, believed that “the earth does not belong us, we belong to the earth.” This world view might seem quaint, a vestige of a primitive people who succumbed to our more industrious attitudes. I would argue the exact opposite!

The survival of Chatham depends on our remarriage to these long-forsaken values. These values are that the earth, water and air that sustain us are sacred, and that no longer can we jeopardize our future by betraying our heritage for a few coins. The rivers, dirt and air of Chatham County must once again be afforded a place above a market place that trades them to trash.

It’s easy for us to oooh and aaaah over scenes of pristine wilderness where they can still be found. Chatham was once pristine, and can be again as we elevate its wonders to a status of reverence.

Goals along that path in regards to our great river basin would be: reinventing our processes for dealing with sewage and waste. Treating them to a minimal standard and then poisoning our drinking water with their effluent is simply stupid. Alternatives already exist. Turning waste into energy is a good one to consider. Creating stronger incentives to encourage organic farming would eliminate the need for fertilizers and chemicals that foul our waters. Direct all storm water into ponds and natural wetlands, allowing nature to clean it for free before it reaches our reservoirs. Ban the use of toxic sewage sludge as fertilizer.

You may call this radical. I call it a manifesto for life, the life and future of Chatham County. Let’s not cripple ourselves by the corrosive compromises of low expectations, but rather re-create the Eden we were meant to enjoy and protect. In so doing we will guarantee our health, prosperity, happiness and longevity.