SACRED WATERS

Those of you who’ve perused this column in the past know that I often focus on the challenges facing our water resources in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. Lake Jordan, the Haw, Deep, and Rocky Rivers and their tributaries from counties around comprise 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, approved the long-awaited draft regulations to begin cleaning up Jordan Lake and its branch contributors. Although this is a momentous milestone in the process, some heavy legislative lifting remains to implement the plan. 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 sources of pollution. Tons of sediment from construction sites, farms and storm water drains wash into its network every year and smother fish and other aquatic organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous feed algal blooms that suck up oxygen, pushing many species toward endangerment or extinction. Sewage sludge, masquerading as agricultural fertilizer, containing an unknown witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, also finds its way into Jordan. Other pollutants leaching into our water include pharmaceuticals, automotive waste, and pesticides, the quantities of which no one can venture even an educated guess.

Nearly a million people live in and around the watershed, and that number is predicted to increase by many thousands in the near future. A burgeoning 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 are these adversaries of clean water you might ask?

Powerful industrial and municipal players have fought against doing anything to clean up their pollution to ensure that neighbors downstream enjoy clean water, too. Resistance from Greensboro, Burlington and Durham has been a regular impediment to the process. Kudos to the Chatham Board of Commissioners for being a positive influence throughout the proceedings. But perhaps the 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 a time, before our command of coal 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 leader, proclaimed 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 which sustain us are sacred, and that we can no longer jeopardize our future by betraying our heritage for a few coins. The rivers, dirt and air of Chatham County must once again be exalted above a market place that trades them to trash.

It’s hypocrisy for us to oooh and aaaah over pristine wilderness where it 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 waste to a minimal standard and then piping its filthy effluent back into our rivers is simply stupid. Alternatives exist. Transforming waste into energy is a good place to start. 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 extreme. 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 standards, but rather re-create the Eden we were meant to enjoy and protect. By such action, we will flourish in health, prosperity, and happiness.