Jordan Lake is a resource that deserves good stewardship, yet trash has been allowed to accumulate along the shoreline since the lake was filled in 1982.
Trash not only mars the beauty of the shoreline, it also damages natural habitats, injures or kills wildlife, degrades water quality and threatens the many beneficial uses of the lake. In the long run, the potential for the local economy to benefit from the lake could also be harmed.
Cary, Apex and north Chatham County depend on the lake for drinking water, and other towns may follow. Those living on the Cape Fear River below the Jordan Lake Dam have protection from floods through management by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Each year, a million visitors enter the Jordan Lake State Recreation Area to camp, swim, hike, fish and boat. Many organizations sponsor sailing regattas and fishing tournaments.
Still more are attracted by wildlife habitat and wildlife-oriented recreation.
Outside the State Recreation Area, the Wildlife Resources Commission manages vast tracts of public land popular with hunters, bird watchers and boaters. Naturalists prize the eagle population. Thousands visit the Corps’ EagleCam project online to view nesting eagles in real time.
Responsibility for trash removal has fallen to volunteer groups because no state, county or local government agency has the mandate or the necessary human and financial resources. Much of the trash found on the shoreline comes from littering and illegal dumping on 1,700 square miles of watershed upstream of the lake. Volunteers have in effect been removing a 30-year legacy of trash from upstream.
With each rainfall in the watershed, trash is washed closer to streams that feed into the Haw River at the southern end or Morgan Creek and New Hope Creek at the north end of the lake. Once reaching the lake, trash becomes trapped in tens of little coves. Water level recedes after storms, but the trash is left behind, high up on the shoreline.
Careless littering by recreational users is far more visible than stormwater-driven trash to lake visitors, but it represents only about 20 percent of the total. Volunteers in Clean Jordan Lake’s Adopt-A-Shoreline Program visit fishing access points three times a year, yet they cannot keep up with trash.
Diapers found on the shoreline end up in the water when the lake level rises. Birds become entangled in discarded fishing line. Shards of glass are a hazard to humans and wildlife. Plastics break down and are ingested by wildlife.
Clean Jordan Lake, the Haw River Assembly and Jordan Lake Environment Education have organized massive trash cleanups. Their success has been made possible by donated services and supplies from the Chatham County’s Department of Solid Waste and Recycle, the Corps headquarters at Jordan Lake, the Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Highway Stormwater Program and N.C. Big Sweep.
Since 2008, over 2,000 volunteers have removed more than 7,000 bags of trash from 15 miles of shoreline. Even more remarkable, 2,700 tires, many still on rims, have been hauled away.
But these volunteer organizations can do only so much to clean up after every careless visitor or each storm event that washes upstream trash down into the lake. While volunteer efforts will necessarily continue, the long-term goal is to reduce trash at its source.
We must address the sources of both recreational and stormwater-driven trash. Innovative educational programs in schools and work places can reduce recreational litter. Reducing trash from future stormwater events needs the cooperation of all eight counties in Jordan Lake’s watershed.
A joint county task force to discuss the issue should be involved. The Council of Governments in the region needs to be engaged, to understand the magnitude of the problem and to consider the trash issue in the context of existing programs to manage storm water runoff. Anti-litter laws could be strengthened and more strictly enforced. More effective recycling programs could be developed.
While this will take years, the future of Jordan Lake depends on better stewardship. Let’s begin now!
Francis A. DiGiano is president and co-founder of Clean Jordan Lake ( cleanjordanlake.org). He is professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.