ZEBULON — Environmental groups are readying for a regulatory battle this fall on the Little River's tranquil banks as they try to stop the city of Raleigh and Wake County from damming the river a decade from now.
A city study required by state and federal rules on the expected effects on aquatic life and the river's ecosystem is expected to be finished late this summer or fall. That will open a chance this September for the public to weigh in on whether the river should stay as is or become a reservoir in eastern Wake County to quench the thirst of residents.
Both the American Rivers nonprofit group and the Neuse River Foundation want to make the public aware of the plans and what they could mean for the eastern part of the county. For more than three decades, environmental groups have opposed the creation of reservoirs and have pushed hard to get old dams knocked down to restore natural flow and revitalize fish and other aquatic life.
"The environmental community across the county is looking at removing dams, not putting them in," said Lynnette Batt, a Durham-based staffer for American Rivers.
But the city of Raleigh and Wake County say they need the river dammed to create a 1,150-acre drinking water reservoir. The two governments have joined forces on the project, which would span the Little River with a 39-foot-tall dam.
"You look at the needs of the communities now and in the future," said David Cooke, Wake's county manager. "You don't wait until it's too late to figure out you need water."
Opponents say the $250 million project could interrupt the migration of fish or create sediment or nutrient filtration problems, similar to those that plague Falls and Jordan lakes, man-made reservoirs that are the prime sources of drinking water for Raleigh and surrounding communities. The project caught the attention of American Rivers, which each year compiles a list of waterways it considers endangered.
The Little River earned a spot as the fourth most endangered river in the group's list released today. Local environmental groups such as the Neuse River Foundation lobbied hard to get the Little River on this year's list as the first shot in a public relations battle to keep the river dam-free. Their fall campaign is pointed toward a crucial moment when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide whether Raleigh's reservoir plan is environmentally sound.
The Upper Delaware River in New York and Pennsylvania, Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the Gauley River in West Virginia and the Cedar River in Iowa joined the Little River in the top five. The Little River is the only North Carolina river to make this year's list. The Neuse River made the list in 2007.
Construction of a dam or water plant on the Little River wouldn't start until 2020, and Raleigh's public utilities department, which also provides water for seven Wake County communities, needs permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That can take years, said John Carman, Raleigh's public utility director.
If the city and county get permission, the reservoir would stretch from the dam planned just north of where the river goes under U.S. 64 to several miles upstream near where N.C. 96 crosses the river. It will hold up to 3.7 billion gallons in its impoundment area.
The nearly 90-mile river begins in Franklin County and flows through eastern Wake County before angling toward Goldsboro and joining the Neuse River near there. Largemouth and stripped bass as well as American and hickory shad swim in the river. The Tar River spiny mussels and dwarf wedge mussels, listed as endangered by the federal government, also live in the Little River, Batt said.
The reservoir that provides Durham with drinking water is on a different Little River. There are no fewer than nine similarly named rivers in the state.
Cost in flux
The cost of the dam and plant could change depending on construction costs in 2020, when the city of Raleigh expects to start building. Wake County has also tossed dollars toward the project, spending about $15 million over the past decade buying land around the river that will be under water, Cooke said.
If the city of Raleigh gets permission to go ahead and dam the river, it would allow for 13 to 20 million gallons of water a day to be pumped into homes and businesses, Carman said.
That would end up supplementing the water that already comes from Falls and Benson lakes, but would only make up a portion of what the need is expected to be in coming decades. Putting in a more aggressive plan to conserve water in the area could make up for whatever water the Little River could deliver, Batt said.
Raleigh's public utilities department currently delivers an average of 47.5 million gallons of water a day to serve the nearly half-million people in Raleigh, Garner, Wake Forest, Rolesville, Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon.
Joining American Rivers in opposition to the reservoir are the Upper and Lower Neuse Riverkeepers, advocates of the dominant waterway for the eastern part of the state. They say the Little River reservoir wouldn't pump enough water to justify disturbing the river's ecosystem. The Little River proposal is being put forward at the same time a Raleigh environmental firm is looking for permission to tear down the century-old Milburnie Dam on the Neuse River in Raleigh. The groups hope to meet with Raleigh officials to discuss alternatives and also will launch a public relations campaign as the issue begins to seep into the public sphere.
Alissa Bierma, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, on a recent canoe trip up the Little River, doesn't think the cost of building the reservoir will be worth it.
"It's ridiculous to spend that much money for this little water," Bierma said.
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