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.


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?

Regional Water Cooperation



With about 7,000 housing units approved but as yet unbuilt in Chatham, our county board of commissioners is grappling with the problem of providing enough water for new residents. The first thought was to upgrade the current water treatment plant on the east side of the lake with about $30 million dollars already set aside for the project. But with other municipalities in the region facing similar challenges, the idea of building a regional water treatment plant on the west side of the lake that would serve several cooperating partners has started to get some play. With David Hughes, Chatham County Public Works Director and John Morris of the state Division of Water Resources taking the lead, earnest negotiations should begin within the next few months according to Hughes.


Jordan Lake has a designated water supply of 15 billion gallons. David Hughes told me that the “safe yield” of the lake is about 100 million gallons per day. Sixty-three million gallons is already allocated. That leaves just 37 million gallons to be divided up between either competing or cooperating partners. Chatham County currently uses 6 million gallons of water per day. With this plan, the county is hoping to procure rights to an additional 9 mg/d that hopefully will see us through until about 2050.

At this point, nobody seems to know what the whole thing would cost, but one thing is clear to prospective partners Durham, Chatham, Pittsboro, Chapel Hill, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Carrborro: it’ll be a lot cheaper to build cooperatively than if it’s every entity for itself. But of course, you know it won’t be a simple process. As neighbors in the region get wind of talk about divvying up Jordan’s remaining capacity, watch for Greensboro and Fayetteville to also make requests. As Hughes told me, “It’s not unusual for everybody and his brother” to want to get into the negotiations when water is being allocated.

Hesitancy on the part of some of the prospective partners is already evident. Apprehensions already exist about what kind of growth we will have in the area as we make plans for our long-term water use. Mayor of Carrboro, Mark Chilton, is concerned with the proliferation of low density living where water sucking, sprawling lawns predominate. He wants to see a strong regional commitment to sustainable water use. “Jordan is the last reservoir of it’s kind in North Carolina. Let’s not use it all up and then talk about conservation. That’s what we’ve done in the past. Water is the limit to growth, not just for the Triangle but for the U. S.”

Senior Pittsboro Town Board member, Gene Brooks, is ready to listen to proposals, but wants to safeguard Pittsboro’s position in future negotiations. “I would assume that you would want to be very careful so that you could retain autonomy. Some times in these ventures the smaller members don’t have much say. I would want to know more about the proposal. But that being said we shouldn’t miss the golden opportunity to work with regional partners on such an issue.”

Pittsboro is in a difficult position. The town draws it’s water from the Haw River, not the best of water sources. Pittsboro water has persistently violated the law with high levels of trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen. The town is working feverishly to avoid a $30,000 fine levied by the state of North Carolina for these violations. A cooperative water treatment venture would serve the town in two important ways: better water quality for a less money.

I would echo Mayor Chilton’s concern. The 37 million gallons yet to be allocated from Lake Jordan may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Especially when climate change will very likely bring hotter, dryer conditions to the Piedmont. Smart conservation techniques must be at the forefront of this proposal or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s stay under our allowable water budget and have some in reserve for a not so rainy day.

Chatham County Commissioner George Lucier is hoping to meet with Goldston, Siler City and Pittsboro soon to begin inter county negotiations for the new water treatment plant. Lucier maintains that Chatham doesn’t need four existing water treatment plants, and would do better to throw in with this cooperative undertaking.

The wise conservation of our water resources will be a true test of the collective mettle of our regional leadership. Success in this endeavor will pave the way for greater cooperation on other important issues like transportation, commerce, air quality and land use policy. Cooperative, cohesive communities gain a reputation of trustworthiness, stability and reliability. These attributes will position our Piedmont neighborhood in good stead when it comes to making choices about development. We will be able to choose the best industries that fit our locale. We’ll have the clout and resources to build sustainable communities that model the best of what North Carolina has to offer.


In my last column you’d have read that I believe farmers are the most important people in the world. Never will I back off that statement. I also mentioned that, for the sake of food security, protection of Chatham County farmlands should be our number one priority. In my first column I spoke about the dead zones growing in Chatham’s rivers and lakes because of fertilizer run off and under treated sewage. This is a continuing enumeration of the serious threats to our local life support system.

Chatham County farmers, like farmers across the nation, are desperate for some way to maintain productivity and profitability. Out of that desperation they have become the unwitting victims of the Synagro Corporation’s plan to sell them sewage sludge that is supposed to nourish their soil for healthier crops. Corporate producers call it “bio-solids.” But it’s better known as sludge.

The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science describes sewage sludge as “A viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals, and settled solids removed from domestic and industrial waste water at sewage treatment plants.”

Among the substances found in sludge are antibiotics, hormones like steroids and Viagra, metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic, concentrations of deadly e. coli, fire retardant, and the ubiquitous disinfectant, triclosan which can be found in anti-bacterial soaps, cosmetics and products for your baby. Triclosan, when exposed to sunlight becomes dioxin.

Then there’s the problem of what happens when thousands of other undetected compounds and disease causing bacteria are concentrated together in sludge. The synergistic affects of that mixture may well be leading to antibiotic strains of deadly e. coli.. Remember last fall? E. coli bacterial contamination of spinach and lettuce killed people, and prompted a nation wide recall of those products. Those fields were irrigated with water discharged from sewage treatment plants.

Also, food crops take up heavy metals and concentrate them. Livestock fed silage contaminated by sewage sludge can pass this toxic burden on to humans as we dine on the flesh of these animals.

Fish populations in our area are already contaminated by fertilizer runoff, and several chemicals in sludge have an estrogen-like affect on fish, causing males to exhibit female sexual characteristics.

There are approximately 52 farmland sludge dumping sites in the Rocky River watershed in Chatham County above Siler City and Sanford. Sludge applied to these sites is very likely running off into the creeks and Rocky River. Set backs from water courses are supposed to be observed, but there is no monitoring to ensure compliance. Furthermore, little to no testing of the Rocky River has been done below these sites to check for contaminants. In 2006, over 5 million gallons of sludge were spread on farmlands in Chatham County (Ed Hardee, Aquifer Protection Section, North Carolina Division of Water Quality, 2008). Cities that have permits to land apply sewage sludge in Chatham County include public utilities in Siler City, Burlington, Sanford, Cary, Apex, OWASA, Holly Springs, and Pittsboro (Ed Hardee, 4/17/08). According to maps provided by Synagro, a number of fields receiving sludge are located extremely close to bodies of water These maps state that 1-inch equals 660 ft. If these maps are to scale, the majority of these permitted fields do not meet the regulatory requirement of a minimum distance of 100 ft. to surface water(Blue Ridge Environmental Defense Fund).

A study conducted by Eastern Washington University and the USGS concluded that a range of compounds are “incompletely removed during wastewater treatment and sequestered in biosolids [a.k.a., sewage sludge] that are subsequently land applied.” The potential concerns surrounding the presence of these compounds in the environment include adverse psychological effects, increased cancer, reproductive impairment in humans and other animals, and antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria.

This ever mounting evidence bolsters an opinion I’ve held for years: some of the greatest crimes are perfectly legal. Intentionally spreading pollution may be legal, but it’s a crime against nature and humanity. Chatham County is being used like a Third World toxic waste dump.

But there may be a glimmer of hope shining in this story.

Senator Barbara Boxer has called for Senate hearings to investigate the risks of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and the risks to water, food and health from sewage sludge used for fertilizer on farmlands.

As comforting as that might sound, I wouldn’t house all my hope in that prospect. Calling for hearings is one thing, actually defending our local farmlands is another. Any politician, national or local is going to need a lot of help to get the job done. Chemical companies and sludge traffickers like Synagro are not going to roll over and play dead. They have well-paid mercenaries of their own, in and out of government.

If Chatham County is going to grow a living, local economy free of legal, corporate pollution then I recommend that we engage our farmers directly and share our concerns with them. If farmers understand the risks of alienating their markets, they’ll have to think twice about hosting toxic sludge on their lands.

Smart Growth

In many ways Chatham County’s future lies before us like a blank slate. The question is: how will we paint the picture? Will we settle for the trite paint by number conventions of the past or will we seize the chance to build a model of sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Growth is the major issue. The thoughtless strategy of sprawl has been duplicated so that the county finds itself an economically flaccid bedroom community to the greater triangle area. As subdivisions chew up broad swaths of farmland and beautiful natural areas we are losing the natural capital to create a quality of life that is essential to our very sustenance.

The first resource that Chatham County must protect is its farmland. Few Americans are working the land nowadays, so we’ve little connection to the people who grow our food. Farmers are the most important people in the world. Exaggeration? It’s a naked fact that if someone doesn’t have their hands in the dirt on our behalf, we will starve. You can’t eat your Ipod, and Steve Jobs can’t sustain your family on what he knows about coaxing miracles from the soil. Fortunately for Chatham County, we actually have an increasing number of farmers. That is a trend that we must protect like our lives depend on it—because they do.

If you’ve been keeping up on the news lately, you’ve seen accounts of food shortages all over the world. Though shortages have not struck here, per se, prices are up sharply, due in large part to the skyrocketing price of oil. This was the concern of the late Robert Rodale, publisher of Prevention and Organic Gardening magazines. Rodale saw how vulnerable our nation was because of dependence on foreign oil. Our dependence has grown by double digits since then. But it was the relationship between oil/gas and food production/distribution that prompted him to write “Empty Breadbasket?” in 1981. It was a study of the American food system and how vulnerable it is to the capricious conditions that govern the prices and availability of the oil that fuels our tractors, trucks and the manufacture of fertilizers from fossil energy. Presently, this insoluble conundrum literally has us over a barrel. Long story short, Rodale recommended that local communities raise more of their own food. The ideal is total food security. With our energy future so uncertain it is folly to continue to import staple foods from California much less lands across the oceans.

If Chatham County’s leaders have the wisdom, foresight and courage to promote our food security they must turn to the task of planning a sustainable way of life. And this doesn’t mean lying down for every rapacious development that comes down the pike. The basics of sustainability are food, affordable housing, transportation, employment and cultural amenities. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Municipalities all over the country are imagineering the concept of Smart Growth. Part of the equation is planning for higher population density to create compact communities. Dallas, Texas provides one good example:

Opened in 2001, the ”live-work-and-play” complex, also adjacent to a bus terminal, includes 211 loft-style apartments, a movie theater, restaurants and 1,600 parking spaces, reports Dallas Morning News writer Michael Lindenberger, quoting its developer Ken Hughes, who said ”it represents what we believe works today” as mixed uses.

I don’t mean to herd all of us into an urban environment, but high density planning is just one arrow in the quiver of possibilities. Instead of land gobbling sprawl, farmers and nature will be able to flourish, and in so doing provide us with food security that will shield us from distant troubles that would threaten our peace and stability.

As communities get more compact and efficient, transportation planning gets easier. You can relax in a light rail train or bio-diesel (produced in Pittsboro) bus instead of fighting traffic and sucking up exhaust fumes. Imagine the time and money we’ll save as we build connected, walkable communities.

Well-planned communities also tend to attract top employers whose employees demand attractive locales with cultural and natural amenities. Soon it becomes a cycle of positive reenforcement.

Among the many other benefits of efficiently planned communities are stronger tax bases which will help us guard the quality of our air, land and soil. There are no substitutes for these god-given essentials. For example: Code Orange air quality alerts, so common in our area, make me furious. I love the warning that it’s only hazardous to sensitive groups. Yeah, anyone with a pair of lungs. It’s an intolerable insult; but like the sheep we so often are, we accept it.

If we will we can take a lesson from this ancient story.

Joseph, the youngest of Israel’s sons saw famine coming to Egypt where he ruled with Pharaoh. He built granaries and stock piled food for seven good years. When the seven lean years came, Egypt and the Hebrews ate of that bounty. Will we be so wise, or will we face the prospect of an empty breadbasket.