Turning the Neuse River into a noose of trash | OPINION: Peter Eichenberger | Indy Week
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Turning the Neuse River into a noose of trash 

Business decisions and good salesmanship lubed with Cherry Bounce—good old-fashioned booze—led to Raleigh becoming the capital. But the lack of water transportation made Raleigh a bad idea in a time when there were no trains or paved roads. Even small barges could go only as far as Smithfield. The prescient might have considered Lillington.

So a muddy crossroad sandwiched between mosquito-infested bottomlands became the choice. Raleigh's growth coincided with the Neuse River's main historic use as a dump, even by my dear dead daddy, an avid, frequent canoeist of the Neuse. As a professor at the N.C. State School of Design, Fred Eichenberger inaugurated the legendary Neuse River Derbies, a basic design project, the point being to navigate a stretch of the river in a vessel he suggested was best made of "chewing gum and tape." One memorable crash and burn was Ray Musselwhite's sort of Ferris wheel made of bamboo and appliance foam, quickly reduced to flotsam by the "fearsome rapids." Then there was the kid astride a half-submerged, upright piano paddling with a gut-string guitar.

After the 1970 derby, we paddled past the take-out point. Daddy suspended future derbies after viewing firsthand the remnants of the competition: trash, scraps of wood and my own entry, stove in by a log—a debris plume that extended presumably to Pamlico Sound. OK, it was the '60s.

Recently, I was in a canoe with the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, overburdened Dean Naujoks, a bluff, straightforward fellow who fell into his dream job from a degree in environmental policy. We glide past bushels of debris caught up in snags. There is half of a giant plastic Easter egg, looks like.

"People," I growl. "Can't cook 'em, can't eat 'em. Well, I guess you can, but..."

The Raleigh Road Canoe Launch was nice enough, although the scrupulous cleaning the Neuse River volunteers performed along the river had been freshly sullied by Newport packs, liquor bottles and fishing tackle. "The volunteers cleaned up 21,000 pounds," Naujoks says.

"And now it's almost back," I lament. "What ails these people, Dean?"

He shakes his head helplessly, this man who got chewed out by a busybody who noticed he was photographed wearing a life jacket while wrestling a car out of the river. Besides the usual "thow it in the creek" North Cackalacky-style mess, there are other messes, like the 4,000 new homes planned for Poole Road.

The ongoing drought notwithstanding, additional strain is inevitable due to slipshod silt control during construction followed by the effects of 4,000-plus cars parked on impermeable surfaces dripping car spoo, the golf courses, da chem-lawns and da dog doo and you name it being dumped into the basin. All this means more stress on a deeply damaged river.

"Don't forget the PCB site feeding into Lake Crabtree," Naujoks says. "We're starting a Crabtree Coalition and Brier Creek group."

"Shoot," I hiss. "We knew back in the '70s when Buck Ward and his boys dumped all that stuff that it wasn't going to just magically go away. And now the authorities are claiming it's a big surprise? What malarkey. It is beyond theft. It is a sin, something stolen from the commonly held trust of the people, and no one's paying for that."

I ask about his Chattahoochee Riverkeeper's hat.

"The Chattahoochee flows through Atlanta, which has completely destroyed the river through uncontrolled, unregulated growth that's now costing them $3.2 billion over the next 20 years to rectify damages to their water quality. So it's not just environmental concerns, but real economic repercussions when we fail to protect water quality."

I ask him about Joyce Kekas's comment about Atlanta. "If I remember, she was concerned about becoming a new Atlanta. If we don't make better land use decisions and plan better and handle storm water better, we will have the same problems as Atlanta. There are 500,000 [people] planned for the area in the next 20 years by the Wake County Watershed task force."

"Another Raleigh and a half. So we need preventative medicine, prophylaxis, to prevent something from happening."

"Yeah. Better land-use decisions. The former governor of Maryland wrote an article for our waterkeeper magazine stating that we absolutely had to make better land-use decisions, and if we don't, we are going to destroy our natural resources and drinking water."

"Which the Triangle seems to be accomplishing. This poor sulky, silted little ditch. The feeling has always been, well, it's just the Neuse."

Naujoks laughs sadly.

Once under way, it is like August. Owing to sedimentation and low water, the thing is just about unnavigable, past sand bars washing off of development. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered flow restrictions, hoping to hold off the crisis of last year.

"Last year, [Raleigh Public Utilities] director Dale Crisp admitted that he didn't enact water conservation measures till way late in the drought because he never thought, after the drought in 2002, there would be another drought for 15 years," Naujoks says. "There was no scientific basis behind his decision, no modeling, he just made that decision, and because of that we are paying with low water flows now, because it never filled the pool levels back in Falls Lake and now they are holding back all this water because Raleigh continues to sell water to Knightdale, Wendell and continues to add to additional development projects.

"Like Chinatown meets kudzu," I say. "And now we are in double Dutch. Same as last year. They have to withhold flow from the river to make sure we don't get in deep doo-doo running out of water."

"And this March and April have been the driest ones on record."

"So we're back to where we were before. If this keeps up, this is going to look like a garden hose by August."

"And on top of close to 870,000 gallons a day being lost through the clear well at the E.M. Johnson treatment plant—clean, drinking water being dumped into the lake. ... Then there was that noxious effluent downstream dumped from the water treatment plant."

"Don't seem like good business practices if you are in the water business, dumping potable water and chemicals into the water supply."

"They didn't vote until this year to clean it up. And then it was suggested that septic tanks, not the water treatment plant, were the problem. It was mismanaged. They're totally embarrassed."

"Any other advocates for rivers, an NGO?"

"Only the global system of riverkeepers, started with Pete Seeger and Robert Kennedy. There are the riverkeepers on a local level, 155 worldwide and 300 applications."

"So the eyes of everyone are everywhere."

"Eleven in North Carolina."

Alluding to Rick Dove, the combat veteran who was a pioneer riverkeeper when the Neuse River Foundation was founded in 1980, Naujoks says, "You always need someone who is not going to cave into political pressure that truly represents the resource and the communities that are impacted when the resource is not taken care of, which is the river," he says. "You wouldn't need a river clean-up if you could get the idea in people's heads that it is something that ought to be done every now and then."

"Everyone who lives in the area is a stakeholder," I say. "If you can get that across, now that would really, really help."

"Then it's about people and poll figures and voter initiatives that suggest you support clean water and clean water is important to you. Most people in Wake County get their drinking water from the Neuse River," Naujoks says. "It is the fastest growing watershed in the nation. The pressure is under- or unrecognized. People assume it is there, it will always be there. You don't have to do anything to it, 'cause it takes care of itself.

"It isn't quite like that," he says. "Nature will take care of itself to a great extent, but good lord, a little bit of a leg-up helps. It doesn't take much. You have to nurture and love something like this. There is this feeling of this river and all rivers that they are living organisms in the interchange between land and water—the bank and the edge of the river."

A woodpecker hammers in the forest.

Riverine systems have intrinsic value that transcends money, what the bean counters call intangibles—the psychic, emotional solace of viewing natural things. Exposure to natural landscapes can forestall, to a certain extent, the negative effects of modern living, society and media systems.

To read about the Neuse River Foundation and the Tour de Neuse, a flotilla from Durham to the coast, visit www.neuseriver.org, where you'll also find information about ongoing paddle trips and the 2006 Neuse River Days, coming up June 2-4 in New Bern.

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