Winding their way through hundreds of miles of terrain, the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers are key sources of water for residents in central and eastern North Carolina.
They use them for drinking, fishing, swimming, kayaking and more from the Triangle to the coast.
On Tuesday, national environmental advocacy group American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C., listed the Neuse and Cape Fear among the “most endangered” rivers in the country because of the “threat industrial agricultural waste poses” to drinking water supplies. Both rivers were ranked No. 7 on the list.
What does that mean - “most endangered”? Does it mean you can’t swim, fish or paddle on these rivers? What are the environmental threats to these waterways and what has been done to safeguard them?
Here are some answers:
Where are the rivers, and why do they matter?
More than 4 million people in North Carolina - 40 percent of the state’s residents - get their drinking water from the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers, including those who live in Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville and Wilmington, so the health of these waterways is a big deal for many localities.
The Neuse is the longest river contained entirely within North Carolina, stretching 275 miles from Durham County, where the Flat and Eno rivers converge, to the Pamlico Sound near New Bern. It flows through Wake, Johnston, Wayne, Lenoir and Craven counties before ending in Pamlico County.
The 200-mile Cape Fear River begins near Moncure in Chatham County where the Haw and Deep rivers converge. It runs through the southeastern part of the state, passing through Lee, Harnett, Cumberland, Bladen, Columbus, Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick counties before spilling into the Atlantic Ocean.
What effect did Hurricane Matthew have?
North Carolina is the second-leading producer of hogs and the third-leading producer of poultry in the country.
Dry waste from poultry is stored in piles, while liquid waste from hogs is stored in lagoons until some of it is later spayed onto fields.
Livestock operations are not allowed to discharge waste into the state’s rivers and streams, but during a flood, rising waters can flush some of the waste from the fields and lagoons into the waterways. That’s what riverkeepers say happened during Hurricane Matthew in October.
The state has seen several other big floods in the last 20 years that led to the “discharge of millions of gallons of raw animal waste directly into the rivers,” according to American Rivers.
What does the N.C. Pork Council say?
The greatest threats to North Carolina rivers come from large municipalities, not farms, according to the pork council, which represents the state’s pork industry.
The group cited comments made by state Division of Water Resources officials in November that claimed only about 15 lagoons were inundated with floodwaters during Hurricane Matthew. Meanwhile, municipalities spilled more than 100 million gallons of untreated waste when rising rivers and streams flooded cities and towns, with at least 62.8 million gallons reaching surface water.
“The American Rivers advocacy report is not an honest assessment of the most impaired waters in North Carolina,” Andy Curliss, chief executive officer for the N.C. Pork Council, said in a statement. “This year, it is part of a coordinated campaign aimed at unfairly attacking North Carolina agriculture and livestock farmers.”
What is the goal of the report?
The annual report by American Rivers is meant as a tool to raise awareness of rivers “at a crossroads” – in danger of increased pollution, which the group believes can be avoided through public policy decisions.
Rivers on the list change from year to year - 2017’s No. 1 most endangered river is the Lower Colorado - and are selected based on criteria, such as if a major decision is on the horizon that the public can help influence. American Rivers has been publishing an endangered rivers list for more than three decades, and the Neuse is making its fifth appearance. The last time it made the list was in 2007.
The rankings aren’t a scientific assessment of river quality, but American Rivers hopes the list will help raise awareness about potentially worsening conditions. The group uses the report to present “alternatives to proposals that would damage rivers, identifies those who make the crucial decisions and points out opportunities for the public to take action on behalf of each listed river.”
Didn’t North Carolina buy out some hog farms?
The state launched the Swine Buyout Program in 1999 after three hurricanes – Floyd, Dennis and Irene – flooded dozens of hog farms. It was a voluntary program administered by the Division of Soil and Water Conservation with funding provided by grants from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
North Carolina spent $18.7 million to purchase swine production and development rights from hog farms in the 100-year floodplain. During the program, 138 hog facilities applied for a buyout, but there was enough money for only 42. The state closed out the production space for nearly 60,000 swine and more than 100 waste lagoons.
Significantly fewer lagoons were inundated during Hurricane Matthew than Hurricane Floyd in 1999, even though the storm last fall brought record flood levels, said Christine Lawson, program manager of the animal feeding operations program with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. That’s because the state had closed some of the lagoons.
What does American Rivers want to happen?
The buyout program still exists, but it is no longer funded. American Rivers is calling on the General Assembly to restore funding for the program as part of its Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts to create a way to remove large-scale livestock feeding operations from the floodplain.
The number of hog farms has remained about the same since the program went into effect because a moratorium on new hog operations was put in place in the late 1990s, but the number of poultry farms has grown. So environmental enthusiasts also hope the state will expand the buyout program to include poultry farms.
“This would be something that we can immediately address through the appropriation of funding in the current legislative session,” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “This is currently our best avenue to reduce the most immediate risks that these facilities pose to our surface waters.”
Are the rivers safe for recreation?
Everyone agrees the rivers are safe for swimming, fishing and kayaking. Environmental advocates want to keep them that way.
“We definitely are not telling people not to recreate or fish or swim,” Starr said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon