Matthew Starr’s work day might involve picking up trash, guiding children in canoes or collecting river water. Other days, he might be writing a report on algae blooms or speaking to state legislators about proposals that would affect water quality.
But as Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, his focus is the same every day: doing whatever he can to keep the Neuse River healthy.
Starr oversees more than 100 miles of river from the headwaters of the Neuse at Falls Lake, near his home, to the Lenoir-Wayne county line, as well as all the creeks and streams that feed it – in all 3,000 square miles of land that makes up half of the Neuse River basin.
He responds to citizen complaints, examines the impact of new development, and works to remedy longstanding problems, such as a coal ash site in Goldsboro that is slated for cleanup.
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Earlier this month, he led about a hundred volunteers who showed up in searing heat to pull 63 bags of garbage from the Neuse, including a cash register, a mattress and the back of a boat.
For Starr, the annual cleanups are only the most visible part of a job that requires both a detailed knowledge of the science behind clean water and a passion for helping others enjoy and value the river he spends his days protecting.
With suburban growth, changing state regulations, continuing runoff from agricultural sites and other issues, he’s not concerned about running out of work.
“The hope of any riverkeeper is to have a river so clean that we’re struggling to find things to do,” he says. “But I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.”
Nicole Stewart, development director at the N.C. Conservation Network, says Starr has been an effective advocate for the river; his passion fueled by growing up and raising his own children near the Neuse.
“He sees protecting the river through the lens of his kids and their ability to play on and drink water from the river like he did,” she says. “He gets all sides of the issue, whether it’s detailed science and data or how to talk to decision-makers and turn around and talk to the public about a pollution threat.”
Getting kids on the river
Starr grew up in Raleigh, off U.S. 70 near Crabtree Valley Mall. He often played in local creeks and rivers as a child.
“I loved being in and around the water,” he says. “Once I knew how polluted the water was around the world, I knew I wanted to do something about that. I want my kids to play in the creeks and do the same things I did as a kid.”
He earned a degree in environmental management from the online arm of the University of Maryland after studying at Lenoir-Rhyne University. His studies were interrupted by his six years of service in the U.S. Army and the N.C. National Guard, which included being deployed to Iraq.
An early internship at the Neuse River Foundation was a turning point. At first given the task of overseeing the group’s Muddy Water Watch program, focused on reducing pollution from sedimentation, he felt working on behalf of the river was his ideal job.
He was named a program director in 2012, organizing the annual cleanups and building a program that has gotten thousands of local schoolchildren out on the river through camps, field trips and other events.
“Getting kids out on the water is paramount to our success 50 years from now,” he says.
He took over as riverkeeper in 2013, expanding his job to virtually every activity that might affect the Neuse and its tributaries.
“It’s everything from coal ash to things like too much phosphorus and nitrogen to pretty much anything and everything involving clean water,” says Starr.
Lobbying for his cause
The role of riverkeeper arose in the United States largely as a response to serious water quality problems in the 1970s and 1980s. The Neuse River Foundation was created in 1981 after a series of fish kills near New Bern.
Last year the group merged with another organization to form Sound Rivers, a nonprofit that employs three riverkeepers covering the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins.
Keeping the river clean means fighting the major threats of too much sediment, which can result from development, or too many nutrients, which can come from agriculture or other sources, as well as contaminants ranging from pharmaceuticals to coal ash to plain old litter.
He says citizens are key to finding problems in the vast river basin – people who travel the same roads or walk the same trails frequently are most likely to notice something astray. One recent morning, he paid a visit to a segment of the river, assessing the downwater impact of a new subdivision.
“I don’t get calls saying this creek is really pretty,” he says. “My calls are this looks like crap or smells like sewage. Someone’s dumping something or there’s algae blooms.”
He’s also a registered lobbyist who spends much of his time now fighting for regulations that protect water quality. Starr says current changes have scaled back regulations that helped improve water quality in the state over recent decades.
“We’re in the rare position to be able to see the future,” he says. “The Neuse now is better than it was, and that was due to smart and fair regulation that had a real effect. If we cut those regulations, we know what’s going to happen: fish kills, shellfish harvesting areas reduced.”
He notes that when he started advocating for the river under a Democratic administration, he still struggled to secure resources and policies that will benefit the river.
Lately, his attention has been on the coal ash spill in Goldsboro.
Duke Energy has agreed to excavate the coal ash from the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro in response to a lawsuit brought on behalf of Starr and other river advocates by the Southern Environmental Law Center. No ash has been moved yet, he says, but he’ll be paddling out to the site this week to check on progress.
“We have a good track record of getting courts to rule on our side,” he says. “Everything we do is based on science.”
He’s also called in to weigh in on community issues. George Farthing was fighting a new Publix in North Raleigh when he met Starr. He says Starr came out and walked the property for several hours, promising to assess the issue on behalf of the Neuse without taking sides in the controversy.
“He gets his hands dirty,” says Farthing. “The level of commitment he has to the safety and quality of the Neuse River was very personal in addition to being his job.”
Part of Starr’s mission is to get the word out on the importance of the Neuse for both recreation and economic reasons. The annual clean-ups, which are followed by a party for volunteers and supporters, are both about helping the river and building community around it.
“It’s really easy to get bogged down in doom and gloom,” Starr says. “But it’s important to have people feel that they are making a difference and to get people re-exposed to the river.”
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Matthew Stewart Starr
Born: March 1984, Raleigh
Career: Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, Sound Rivers
Education: B.S. environmental management, University of Maryland University College
Family: Wife Nicole; children Caden, Kinley and Lilly
Fun Fact: A good friend of Starr’s is an Iraqi riverkeeper.