By Audrey Dunn, Outreach & Programs Officer, Cape Fear River Watch
When I first accepted an Environmental Education Americorps position at Cape Fear River Watch, I honestly didn’t know the first thing about the water quality of the Cape Fear River Basin. I just thought it would be fun and relaxing to move to the small coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, to teach kids about nature. It wasn’t until move-in day that I received the surprise that the tap water wasn’t drinkable: among the items that one of my roommates had already dropped off at the house was her water dispenser and ten five-gallon jugs of water. From there it was a crash course on the Chemours facility located upstream of Wilmington that discharges carcinogenic chemicals called PFAS into our drinking water (which our drinking water treatment facility doesn’t currently have the technology to filter out). I also quickly learned about all sorts of other disturbing water-related issues such as the unsafe bacteria levels in our tidal creeks, the heavy metals that contaminate a nearby fishing spot, the series of locks and dams that hinder the reproductive success of anadromous fish (fish that live in the ocean and spawn in freshwater), oh, and the fact that our river basin is home to the highest density of swine CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) on the planet and that their waste (containing nutrients, bacteria, heavy metals, and endocrine disrupting hormones) contaminates our rural waterways which drain into the Cape Fear. Not to mention the “normal” problems such as the tons of trash littering our roadways, ditches, and railroad tracks – trash that drains, blows, and meanders on its own little journey, filling our streams and seas with micro- and macro-plastics. Or the other non-point source pollutants such as auto fluids and sediment and pesticides that make their way into our urban waterways via our stormwater runoff drainage system.
Nearly two years later and I’m still in Wilmington, now a full-time staff member at the River Watch. I’m a little bit burnt out and still a little freaked out by the state of Wilmington’s water quality (drinking and otherwise), but I’m also sustained by the satisfaction of working at this tiny organization that accomplishes huge achievements through passion and hard work, by the partnerships that we’ve forged and continue to forge with other community groups, and mostly by the knowledge of what’s at stake: the possibility of a healthy and just future for all, sustained by the protection of our unique and beautiful environment. Our little area of the world is the most biodiverse region on the eastern seaboard north of Florida. In the Cape Fear River basin, one can find manatees and dolphins, and also stripers and sturgeon, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The famous carnivorous Venus flytrap is only found in the wild in a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, growing right alongside pitcher plants and sundews under the shade of a longleaf forest. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a kayak paddling down the Black River through the Three Sisters Swamp, you’ll gaze in wonder at the ancients – millennia-old bald cypress trees, including the fifth oldest-known living tree on Earth, aged at 2,624 years old.
For nearly three decades, River Watch staff, board members, supporters, interns, and volunteers have been hard at work bringing attention and awareness to this unique ecosystem that provides so much for humans and animals alike. We do that through our mission of protecting and improving the water quality of the Cape Fear River Basin for all people through education, advocacy, and action. In the short time that I’ve been at the organization, together we’ve tackled myriad issues. In 2019 we completed a pilot study on the heavy metal contamination of Sutton Lake, a popular fishing spot for many, including low-income sustenance anglers. Sutton Lake served as a cooling reservoir for a coal power plant for years, and when Florence hit in 2018, the coal ash stored on the lake’s edges (a residual of coal combustion composed of heavy metals) was swept into the lake and from there into the Cape Fear. Also in 2019 we filed a Consent Order with Chemours, the result of a lawsuit against both Chemours and the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The consent order required the company to stop its decades-long discharge of toxic pollution and clean up onsite contamination to drastically reduce PFAS from air emissions, groundwater, and surface water discharges into the Cape Fear, as well as ongoing sampling and health studies. That year we also diverted well over 2000 pounds of trash and recycling from our waterways and reached thousands of kids through field trips, school presentations, and community environmental education festivals.
Last year Covid-19 barely held us back. In July we filed a lawsuit along with 16 other environmental organizations suing the Trump administration for their rollback of NEPA, often called the “Magna Carta of environmental laws”. In August we recommenced our community cleanups, ultimately again diverting over 2000 pounds of litter and debris from our roadsides and waterways. We also doubled the number of citizen science volunteers monitoring water quality through our Creekwatchers program. Through that program we train members of the public to make water quality observations of our urban waterways in (now) four counties. School groups, scouting troops, individuals, and families have adopted sections of creeks nearby where they live or recreate, visiting their site once per month to collect water samples that we test in our in-house lab for bacteria, conduct a litter cleanup, and take photos and fill out a monitoring form. We also established ourselves as a Swim Guide affiliate in 2020. Through that program our water quality specialist Patrick and our university interns visit nearby recreational spots every two weeks to collect data on water quality including bacteria levels. Through the Swim Guide website and app, we are able to alert the public to unsafe recreating conditions at those sites. That summer we also launched our Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement program in partnership with the New Hanover County chapter of the NAACP. Environmental and social issues meet at the intersection of environmental justice: Black, brown, and low-income community members are exposed at a greater rate to environmental hazards due to their relative distance from the decision-making table. We’re proud of the seminar, short films, and discussions we’ve held space for in order to bring awareness to the deeply entrenched nature of the environmental injustices experienced in southeastern North Carolina and elsewhere.
This year we’ve hit the ground running. Our staff somehow managed to increase by three during Covid-19 (myself included in that number). We’re experiencing the pains of growth: knowing we have to do more to grow, but needing to grow to do more. To that end, our staff’s roles are becoming ever more clearly defined and the machine is increasingly well-oiled. Dana, our ED, continues to work passionately to address our community’s (and it turns out, our world’s) growing PFAS problem while simultaneously holding the rest of us together. Kemp, our Riverkeeper, and Patrick, our water quality field specialist, are tackling the pollution created by industrial farming – just the other day the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of us and the Environmental Justice Community Action Center challenging four state water permits that allow Smithfield-owned hog operations to produce gas from giant pits of untreated hog feces and urine, and meanwhile spraying that waste on surrounding communities, and continuing the disproportionate impact on communities of color nearby. Kemp and I launched our new microplastics reduction project on Burnt Mill Creek, an urban waterbody near downtown Wilmington. That project is part of a larger two-year microplastics pilot project spearheaded by Waterkeepers Carolina, the consortium of North and South Carolina Waterkeepers. In the first year we’re collecting baseline microplastics data from the creek, and in the second year we’ll install a trash trapping device to collect and analyze litter, with the intent of removing plastics from the waterbody in a time effective manner in order to reduce the level of microplastics downstream. The hope is that we’ll find lower levels of microplastics a year after installing the device and urge the City of Wilmington to install and maintain similar devices throughout our other urban creeks. Our Environmental Educator Kay Lynn has been busy with an extremely vital aspect of our work: bringing people out into nature to appreciate its beauty and learn about what threatens it. She has developed multiple paddling tours through our beautiful river marshes and a walking tour down our historic riverfront. Charley, our Communications and Development Officer, has been doing the tough job of simultaneously communicating with the world everything that we do while also growing the depth and breadth of support from our community in order to help keep us afloat.
Before the damming of our river and the clearcutting of our longleaf pine ecosystem and the filling in of our wetlands for development, before the endless parking lots and highways and strip malls and McMansions, before the advent of industrial farming, this little area of land and water sustained itself and provided for all. In our own way, we’re here to call attention to that fact and to remind people that it is necessary to think critically and compassionately about how we want to treat our environment and each other now and in the future.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cape Fear River Watch and our activities, please visit our website at www.capefearriverwatch.org, sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. If you are interested in supporting our activities, please consider becoming a member, which you can do at www.capefearriverwatch.org/join/.