On a recent afternoon in the shallows at Jordan Lake, a trio of turtles hoisted themselves onto fallen tree limbs and basked in the sun, welcoming a recent spate of summer-like heat.
Startled by an approaching fishing boat, the two smaller turtles dropped into the water. The third and largest remained boldly perched on a log. Its head tilted regally to the sun, the creature posed as if savoring a moment of sovereignty over this tiny cove near the Jordan dam. Among its loyal subjects: bright green algae, buzzing dragonflies, dozens of old plastic water and soda bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, a golf ball, a car tire, a football and a floating refrigerator door.
On other shorelines across the Jordan Lake's sprawling 14,000 acres, which span Durham and Chatham counties, striking Great Blue Herons wade in the shallows, bowing their swooping necks in search for food. Sometimes they stand amid plastic bottles and grocery bags in their hunt for a morsel.
Tom Colson, a hydrologist who has been fishing here for several years, has photos of more dismal juxtapositions between the lake's natural splendor and the litter threatening its diverse plant life, animal life and water quality. The volume of garbage is overwhelming, he said.
"It's hard to combat that feeling and keep plugging away," said Colson, who has been organizing volunteer trash cleanups of the area through the newly formed group Clean Jordan Lake. "It's hard not to bang your fist on the table and demand attention."
The reservoir, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is a drinking water source for residents in Cary, Apex, Morrisville and parts of Chatham County. State agencies and local authorities already have taken major steps to further curb pollution in Jordan Lake from contributors such as stormwater and fertilizer runoff.
But among the handful of organizations that have jurisdiction of the lake and its surrounding parks, game land and boat ramps, none is tasked with hauling out the more visible pollution: thousands of tires still on their rims, rusted oil barrels, water heaters, plumbing pipe, used diapers, old clothes, downed tree limbs and other debris that washes up into woods around the lake when water levels are high.
So the work is left to volunteers, like those who worked with Colson last October and filled a 40-foot dumpster nearly twice over, and the Haw River Assembly, which held a 213-person clean up in March along the Haw and at lake Jordan. Volunteers from programs such as local chapters of Keep America Beautiful and NC Big Sweep also hold regular clean ups, as well as groups led by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But just as soon as loads of garbage are removed, they're sure to be replaced with more refuse, Colson said. While some of the trash might have come from the more than one million visitors to Jordan Lake's parks each year, most of it flows from upstream on the Haw River, which starts 100 miles away in Forsyth County, Colson said.
To prove his point, he walked up the shoreline on a recent trip to the lake and picked up a washed-up, ash-colored tree limb about the width of his forearm.
"This is a river birch," he said. "This doesn't grow anywhere around Jordan Lake."
Although they might not seem as threatening as garbage, the twigs, limbs and, occasionally, entire trees that jam the Jordan's shores also pose ecological problems. They quash the growth of grasses and trees, and their presence in the water limits sunlight reaching the lake bottom.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hires a contractor every several years to clear some of the limbs and logs that pile up near the Jordan dam at the south end of the lake, said R.C. "Duck" Duckson, assistant operations manager at the lake for the corps. But that work doesn't address the debris around the rest of the shoreline.
With the state of the economy, it's unlikely that any government agency is going to tackle cleaning the litter around Jordan Lake. So Colson is hopeful that in addition to the support his organization has received from state and local entities—they've provided work gloves, dumpsters and trash bags—it can also win grants or collect part of the state's tire disposal tax once Clean Jordan Lake gains nonprofit status.
Colson believes it would take heavy equipment and at least $2 million to clean up the existing litter, with about half of that going to removing an estimated 5,000 tires still on their rims. But to truly solve the problem, residents need to stop littering on roadways. Even a cigarette butt thrown on the side of the interstate will end up in a waterway, he said.
Despite airing radio and TV commercials that promote recycling, distributing free tarps for motorists to cover their open loads and spending $19 million last year to pick up litter along North Carolina highways, the state still has some of the country's dirtiest roadways. According to a state report, law enforcement agencies issued 3,433 littering charges last year, a 12 percent drop from 2008. Just 44 of those citations were written by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, which manages 38 state parks and recreation areas, including parts of Jordan Lake. An additional 426 citations were issued by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which also manages a boat ramp and game lands around Jordan Lake.
State conviction rates for littering have hovered just under 50 percent since 2007, according to the 2009 interagency report issued by the state.
Colson and others want stricter penalties for litterbugs.
"Instead of a $20 ticket, they should spend eight hours walking up and down the highway picking up trash," he said. (Offenders actually face fines from $50 to $2,000 and sometimes community service, depending on the charge.)
Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly and a board member for Clean Jordan Lake, suggests the state study the possibility of a bottle-deposit law, in which consumers pay a few extra cents for products in plastic bottles. Consumers would get the tax back when they return the recyclable bottle.
"I think the bigger problem is not to do the trash cleanups, but to keep the litter from entering the waterways," she said.
The turtles, herons, ospreys, and bald eagles—and Colson—would be happy about that.