The Congo of Polluted Water


Impaired Waters by County

The list of impaired waters was compiled from the draft 2014 303(d) list that North Carolina recently submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Impaired waters are measured in miles for rivers, streams and creeks or in acres for lakes, marshes and sounds. Eighty-three of the state’s 100 counties are on the list. The totals: 3,004.4 miles and 2,446,218.7 acres, or about 3,822 square miles, of impaired waters in the state. * signifies a coastal county under state law.

Alamance County: 47.5 miles, 245 acres

Alexander County: 26.1 miles

Alleghany County: 7.8 miles

Anson County: 55.1 miles

Ashe County: 6.9 miles

Avery County: 18.5 miles

Beaufort County*: 9.4 miles, 35,304.5 acres

Bertie County*: 14.8 miles

Bladen County: 11.6 miles

Brunswick County*: 12.7 miles, 20,707.6 acres

Buncombe County: 86.6 miles

Burke County: 23.4 miles

Cabarrus County: 137.9 miles

Caldwell County: 54.8 miles

Camden County*: 231,354 acres

Carteret County*: 2.9 miles, 32,721.3 acres

Caswell County: 90.7 acres

Catawba County: 34.4 miles, 31,331.6 acres

Chatham County: 67.3 miles, 2,547.9 acres

Cherokee County: 44.3 miles

Chowan County: 6.5 miles, 61,749.7 acres

Clay County: 4.7 miles

Cleveland County: 10.7 miles

Columbus County: 65.2 miles

Craven County*: 17.4 miles, 34,654.2 acres

Cumberland County: 5.1 miles

Currituck County*: 291,469.7 acres

Dare County*: 335,469.9 acres

Davidson County: 78.7 miles, 26,161.8 acres

Davie County: 7.5 miles

Duplin County: 30.6 miles

Durham County: 72.9 miles, 4,997.1 acres

Edgecombe County: 19 miles

Forsyth County: 86.3 miles, 789.7 acres

Gaston County: 45.5 miles, 8,998.5 acres

Granville County: 14 miles, 3,581.4 acres

Greene County: 58.5 miles

Guilford County: 112.7 miles, 263.3 acres

Halifax County: 8.1 miles

Haywood County: 33.6 miles

Henderson County: 52.4 miles

Hertford County*: 22.5 miles, 39,049.7 acres

Hyde County*: 2,612.5 acres

Iredell County: 100.6 miles, 31,331.6 acres

Johnston County: 73.3 miles

Jones County: 18.1 miles, 792.6 acres

Lee County: 21.2 miles

Lenoir County: 71.9 miles, 31,331.6 acres

Macon County: 38.9 miles

Madison County: 17.7 miles

Martin County: 13.3 miles

McDowell County: 5.5 miles

Mecklenburg County: 194 miles, 38,539.1 acres

Mitchell County: 44.4 miles

Montgomery County: 21.6 miles, 19,630.3 acres

Moore County: 16.2 miles

New Hanover County*: 4.6 miles, 14,776.3 acres

Onslow County*: 7,720 acres

Orange County: 35.3 miles

Pamlico County*: 33,215 acres

Pasquotank County*: 7.9 miles, 231,354.1 acres

Pender County*: 28.4 miles, 2,031.1 acres

Perquimans County*: 7.9 miles, 283,918.2 acres

Person County: 88.8 miles

Randolph County: 43.1 miles

Richmond County: 21.4 miles

Roberson County: 4.8 miles

Rockingham County: 10.4 miles, 2,028.5 acres

Rowan County: 42.8 miles, 18,418.4 acres

Rutherford County: 18.2 miles

Sampson County: 64.6 miles, 4,845.6 acres

Stanly County: 14,784.8 acres

Stokes County: 2,073.5 acres

Surry County: 10.8 miles

Swain County: 170.6 miles

Transylvania County: 10.8 miles

Tyrrell County*: 260,589.1 acres

Union County: 178.1 miles, 353.3 acres

Vance County: 3.3 miles

Wake County: 203.7 miles, 216.6 acres

Washington County*: 17.7 miles, 283,998.3 acres

Watauga County: 20.2 miles

Wayne County: 33.3 miles

Wilkes County: 3.1 miles

All of Currituck Sound, large chunks of the White Oak and Pasquotank river basins and even little Greenfield Lake in Wilmington will likely be added this year to a list of dubious distinction: Water bodies in North Carolina that no longer meet pollution standards and must by federal law be cleaned up.

More than 82,000 acres of marshes, lakes and sounds and 50 miles of rivers and streams in coastal watersheds will be added for the first time to the state list of waters that have exceeded water quality standards to the point where the state must come up with clean-up plans.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, states must compile their lists of so-called “impaired waters” every two years. North Carolina recently submitted its draft 2014 list – all 158 pages of it – to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With the new additions, North Carolina now has more than 3,004 miles of rivers and streams on the list. If the segments were connected end to end, they would replace the famed Congo River in Africa as the ninth-longest river in the world. The almost 2.5 million acres of marshes, lakes and sounds on the list would cover Yellowstone National Park or the Everglades.

Though the 1972 federal law requires states to come up with plans to bring the water bodies on the list back to standards, don’t hold your breath. Many of the waters on the N.C. list have been there for decades.

Tom Reeder

North Carolina isn’t alone. A U.S. Government Accounting Office report on the EPA program, released in January, found that more than half of the nation’s assessed waters fail to meet water quality standards. It identified 500,000 miles of impaired rivers and 12 million acres of impaired lakes and sounds. Under current funding levels and restoration rates, the report said, it would take at least 1,000 years to restore the water bodies, many of which have been blighted by agricultural and stormwater runoff.

In North Carolina, significant coastal waters that for the first time made the list of the state’s most impaired waters include more than 69,000 acres of Currituck Sound on the northern Outer Banks, 3,158 acres of the White Oak River in the central coast, 9,186 acres of the Pasquotank River in the northeast coast and 75 acres of Greenfield Lake, a historic lake that is the centerpiece of one of Wilmington’s oldest and most popular parks.

High concentrations of enterococcus, a bacteria found in human and animal waste, were found in Currituck Sound and segments of the White Oak, which also had low dissolved oxygen and pH levels. Sampling in Greenfield Lake found high chlorophyll levels, which trigger algal blooms and fish kills. Copper is the problem in the sections of the Pasquotank River that made the list.

That Currituck Sound has high bacteria levels was news to Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon. Concerns have been raised in recent years about salinity, turbidity and decreases in aquatic grasses, he said, but not enterococcus levels. Scanlon said that recreational water quality tests –although suspended for part of last year – have not revealed any persistent issue.

“I’m curious to know why Currituck County has not been notified,” he said of the impaired listing. “I am generally aware if and when they have a bad sample.”

An Army Corps of Engineers water quality study of the sound that the state sponsored is on hold because of lack of funding, said Corps’ spokesman Hank Heusinkveld in an e-mail. The project, he said, was “zeroed out” last fiscal year by the state legislature.
Required under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act, the state’s bi-annual listing has included some unhealthy water bodies over and over again; new names are added when their troubled condition reaches a rank of five. The federal law defines impaired waters as those that require more stringent regulations to meet a state’s water quality standards. Each state must set priority rankings for the listed waters and calculate the maximum level of pollutant the water body can receive – known as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs – and still meet water quality standards.

Over the years, runoff from agriculture, development and industrial animal farms – known in the trade as “nonpoint” sources — has increased, dwarfing pollutants coming directly from wastewater systems and chemical plants, or “point” sources. But the 42-year-old Clean Water Act does not address the modern reality of chemicals and fertilizers on lawns, farms and golf courses, or the massive amounts of waste produced by hog and chicken operations.

“All of that was written as if pollution came from point sources,” said Kathy Stecker, a supervisor with the state Division of Water Resources. “Then it did. Now it doesn’t.”

Stecker said that the list does not identify the sources of pollutants.

Threatened waters in the White Oak River Basin are most likely related to nutrient runoff from fields, said Dale Weston, executive director of the White Oak-New Riverkeeper Alliance. “The farming business is pretty uncontrolled,” he said. “There’s very little water quality monitoring up there.”

The problem is probably more widespread, said Todd Miller, executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation. His nonprofit group sampled more than 200 sites in the lower White Oak several years ago. “Everywhere we looked, we found high bacteria levels,” Miller said.

Those tests, he explained, detected bacteria levels that exceeded the state standard for shellfish-growing waters in roadside culverts, boat ramps, drainage ditches in residential neighborhoods and even in canals in a national forest.

Genetic testing of bacteria showed that they came from animals. Miller noted.

“Bacteria are part of nature. They’ve always been there,” he said. “But we have so altered the natural landscape with our ditches, roads and parking lots that a moderate rain now carries that bacteria to the nearest water body.”

The EPA’s attempt to tighten the TMDL regulation by requiring better identification of sources of impairment and monitoring to verify improvements in water quality was rejected by Congress in 2000, according to the GAO report.

Ana Zivanovic-Nenadovic

Mike Mallin

Even after the state identifies action to bring down levels of pollution to acceptable standards, and its plan is approved by the EPA, the federal agency does not have the authority to enforce implementation of any remediation, nor does it give the state that power. The state, however, can force improvements through its permitting of point sources, Stecker said. Also, the state rule-making process has also been used effectively to manage nutrients in several water basins, she said. Otherwise, the state can apply for EPA-funded grants to create plans to address non-point sources, she said, and seek assistance from private groups.

The TMDL is valuable, Stecker added, because it provides an assessment of water quality where the state is conducting monitoring, and it is helpful for local planning purposes.

But of the more than 50,000 TMDLs developed nationwide, many have not achieved what was intended.

“So there’s a lot of them,” she said, “ but I don’t know that there’s a lot to show for them.”

According to information provided by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the department is responsible for compiling the list for the EPA, but many others – local governments, state agencies and watershed groups – work towards restoration of listed waters. The federation, for instance, used federal grants to devise restoration plans for portions of the White Oak River and for the Lockwoods Folly River in Brunswick County. It’s also on the state list.

Money from federal, state and outside grants and loans, however, are limited, and likely not enough to fully implement all TMDLs, an issue for all states, a spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

Budget and staff cuts imposed by the N.C. General Assembly on the state’s environmental agencies over the last two years would seem to make restoring impaired waters virtually impossible. But the state has the resources to continue oversight of its waters, according to a state administrator.

“The N.C. Division of Water Resources has the adequate number of staff to conduct monitoring operations,” Tom Reeder, the division’s director, said in an e-mail.

Doing individual TMDLs in coastal watersheds impaired by stormwater runoff can be costly and time consuming, agreed Ana Zivanovic-Nenadovic, program and policy analyst for the federation. Numerous studies over the last decade have shown that rapid development of the coastal landscape has changed the hydrology of land, which has increased stormwater runoff into sensitive coastal waters, she said. The federation has put together a Watershed Restoration Planning Guidebook that it posted on its web site yesterday. The guidebook provides detailed guidance, information, resources and techniques about how to create a watershed restoration plan and ultimately clean polluted water without first calculating a TMDL, Zivanovic-Nenadovic said.

“The novel method presented in the guidebook relies on reducing the total volume of stormwater runoff that reaches the water bodies rather than on traditional methods such as end-of-pipe treatment and source treatment that are not working,” she explained. “The guidebook presents strategies and low-cost tools, such as low-impact development, that are easily available and affordable to almost anyone.”

Water quality in the state has suffered from nutrient overload in stormwater runoff and fecal bacteria from warm-blooded animals, usually waterfowl, dogs or humans. Recreational waters are monitored by the state on a regular basis, mostly in the summer, although some sites were cut back last year, said J.D. Potts, who heads the sampling program for the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Potts said he believes that funding has been restored this year for the full program.

According to the GAO report, local officials reported that only 20 percent of assessed national waters affected by runoff or other nonpoint source pollution had reached clean-up targets.

Greenfield Lake in downtown Wilmington illustrates an ongoing issue with nonpoint sources, specifically nutrient overloads in several tributaries feeding the lake, said Mike Mallin, a research professor at the Center for Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The lake is routinely plagued with algal blooms, fish kills and high fecal bacteria levels.

One tributary’s samples, he said, exceeded water quality standards for fecal contamination by 100 percent.  There are also heavy metals in the lake sediment. Despite its issues, Greenfield Lake is still a popular recreational lake for fishing and small-scale boating, he said, although swimming is not permitted.

Mallin welcomes the new listing because it will qualify the lake for EPA funds to help address the nutrient overloading in the lake.

“I am optimistic because Greenfield Lake –it’s not like it’s some stream hidden away in the woods,” he said. “It’s got high visibility. So I’m pretty sure remedial action will be taken by a combination of the city and private resources, and the university.”

But Mallin did not speak as hopefully about the chances for other compromised water bodies.

“Certainly, a lack of funding is a biggie,” he said. “We’re hamstrung by a General Assembly that could care less about clean air and clean water.”

About the Author

Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has been a reporter and writer on the Outer Banks since 1995. She worked for 15 years for The Virginian Pilot. Born and raised in the suburbs outside New York City, Catherine earned her journalism degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. During her career, she has written about dozens of environmental issues, including oil and gas exploration, wildlife habitat protection, sea level rise, wind energy production, shoreline erosion and beach nourishment. She lives in Nags Head.