By Trista Talton
The Cape Fear River is unparalleled in many ways.
It’s the only major river in North Carolina that empties directly into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the state’s largest river basin where 6,500 miles of navigable waterways snake through 26 counties and 113 municipalities.
The river is also the most industrialized river in North Carolina. Its banks are peppered with power plants, manufacturing plants, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, paper mills and industrial agriculture.
“The Cape Fear River basin has more hog farms than any other watershed on earth,” said Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette.
Speaking at Cape Fear River Watch’s first State of the River forum Wednesday, Burdette talked of a spectacular river crucial to an array of fish species, of a river that is the raw drinking water source for tens of thousands of North Carolinians.
But the river, he said, is a fragile one already, bearing the impacts of climate change and sea level rise, polluted by man-made chemicals, stormwater runoff, and waste runoff from factory farms.
Contamination from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, remains one of the biggest and most persistent problems affecting the river’s water quality, Burdette said.
“It is a very difficult and slow fight and the wins are small and the progress is incremental,” he said to the more than 100 people attending the forum.
Though there have been buyouts, factory hog farms remain prevalent in the river basin.
Most of these farms are concentrated in Sampson and Duplin counties, areas that have in the past several years seen a sharp increase in the large poultry farms.
North Carolina has become the leading producer of poultry, an industry that is largely unregulated.
“We need to ban new poultry facilities because we don’t even know what the impacts are,” Burdette said.
He was among a number of speakers at this year’s forum held on Cape Fear Community College’s campus in downtown Wilmington, an area graced by scenic river views about 26 miles upstream of the Atlantic Ocean, one that is rising as a result of climate change.
“By 2050 our watershed and this downtown will look significantly different than it does today,” Burdette said.
He was referring to the area’s sea level rise projections, the latest of which were put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in February.
The administration predicts that sea level rise here will reach 2 feet between 2060 and 2080.
“We know (sea level rise) is accelerating,” said Roger Shew, Cape Fear River Watch board member and a geologist and earth and ocean sciences lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “It keeps rising. We need to know and plan for what’s going on.”
During his talk, Shew displayed on two large projection screens photographs of the flooded parking lot and road leading to the Battleship North Carolina, the World War II memorial tucked on the river’s west bank across from downtown Wilmington.
The photographs were taken Jan. 3, when high tide pushed the river’s waters over its banks where flooding was more than 2 feet deep. It was the 10th highest recorded flood event in the area.
Shew said considering cumulative impacts to the river – whether its further deepening of the shipping channel between the river’s mouth and the Port of Wilmington or riverside development – is important to protecting the river.
The river hosts a variety of valuable ecosystem services including critical coastal and riverine habitat, commercial and recreational fishery resources, recreational resources and a rich, historic and cultural heritage.
Anadromous fish, or those that are born in freshwater, migrate to sea, then back to freshwater to spawn, are found in the river’s waters. Such species include both endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, and striped bass.
Cape Fear River Partnership coordinator and coastal scientist Dawn York said NOAA officials have said the Cape Fear River is the only one with anadromous fish to have a series of locks and dams fragmenting the river, limiting the range of migration for those fish.
The partnership spearheaded a project about 10 years ago to construct a rock arch rapids at Lock and Dam No. 1, about 39 miles above Wilmington.
The rapids were modified in 2021. York said that the partnership is hoping to construct similar features at locks and dams Nos. 2 and 3.
The Cape Fear also provides a storm buffer and flood protection. The river’s marshes are one of the most productive areas in the world, Shew said.
But as salinity rises in the river with the rising sea, organic soils and peat will break down, a phenomenon that will equate to the loss of marsh.
As saltwater migrates up the river, man-made chemicals and runoff from large factory farms upstream infiltrate the watershed.
North Carolina-based researchers have found high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, in striped bass and alligators in the river.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals used in numerous consumer products, including everything from nonstick cookware, fast food packaging and makeup to flame retardants.
Five years ago, residents of the Cape Fear region learned that the Chemours Company’s Fayetteville Works Facility upstream in Bladen County had been discharging PFAS, including GenX, directly into their drinking water source since 1980.
A consent order, the result of a lawsuit brought by North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch against the company that’s a spinoff of DuPont, mandates Chemours to reduce the amount of PFAS released from the plant into the river, air and ground by 99 percent.
In a video address played at the start of Wednesday’s forum, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said combating PFAS contamination is one of his priorities.
“These companies line their own pockets at the expense of people’s health,” he said.
In October 2020, Stein filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County Superior Court against DuPont and a dozen other companies, including Chemours, alleging that the companies knew the chemicals pose health threats to people and the environment.
“They need to clean up the mess they made in the Cape Fear River basin,” he said. “As my investigation continues I may take additional legal actions. Every North Carolinian has a right to clean drinking water. It’s that simple.”
Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the NAACP and a board member with Cape Fear River Watch, grew up along the river banks in downtown Wilmington.
She’s drunk the river’s water for most of her life. She was baptized in its waters.
“I’ve had a healthy respect and love for the river for a long time,” she said. “It is the lifeline of this community because water is life. Are we listening to what we need to do? Are we really listening? Do you wish to preserve what is here? It is up to you. Please take heed to what is going on.”