By Will Atwater

The name of the river supposedly comes from a Native American term for “peace,” but for years, the Neuse River was anything but peaceful. Polluted, filled with gunk, dammed and experiencing fish kills, the river was in trouble for years, so much so that it was listed as one of America’s most endangered rivers in 2007. 

Changes in federal laws, agricultural practices and a renewed focus on the recreational possibilities of the Neuse have helped start a turnaround. 

That’s why it might come as a surprise to some that the Neuse River was recognized as the river of the year by American Rivers, a national advocacy organization that has worked to protect and restore rivers for decades. Local, state and federal officials, including Goldsboro native Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, came to an event at Old Waynesborough Park in Goldsboro on Monday to mark the occasion.

“The River of the Year honor celebrates outstanding progress toward a cleaner, healthier Neuse River that is vital to every person who lives in this region,” said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers. “We applaud the frontline communities and partners who speak up for the river every day and continue to push for solutions. This river is a success story that we must keep writing together.”

But while many acknowledge the river has seen tremendous improvement, others note the 250-mile-long river still has a long journey to reaching its full potential as a natural resource that provides both drinking water and recreational opportunities for residents.

An asset still under pressure

The Neuse River feeds into Falls Lake Reservoir, in the Upper Neuse basin. The reservoir provides drinking water for Raleigh and other communities, such as Garner, Rolesville, Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon.

In the past, the Neuse River has suffered from a buildup of nitrogen and phosphorus, point source contaminants that come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), located at different points along the river. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus can rob the river of oxygen, resulting in fish kills, such a notorious 2015 event, and algal blooms. 

Recently, microplastic debris has also been found in the Neuse, substances that pose health risks to fish and humans.

Reflecting on how the Neuse River has evolved from a point in the 1970s when locals would describe large algal blooms as “black gunk” ruining their fishing gear, American Rivers Southeast Region Director Peter Raabe offered an optimistic view of the river’s progress.

“There was so much that was being dumped in the river … It’s really now that we’ve had the federal Clean Water Act there and the protection the state has put in place through the Neuse River rules,” he said, “we’re finally at a place where people are like, ‘look, this river is an asset, it’s a resource for us, and we want to be able to use it and celebrate it.’ I think that’s sort of the shift that’s really occurred in the last 50 years for the river.”

Exploring the Neuse

Recognition of the river’s progress occurred just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which was signed into law on Oct. 18, 1972. The first major sponsored safeguard against water pollution was the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Act, which subsequently gave rise to the CWA.

The act provides the EPA with the authority to establish water quality standards, prohibit point source contaminant discharges into waterways without a permit and fund sewage treatment plants, among other things.

Prior to Monday’s event, Neuse River riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Pamlico-Tar riverkeeper Jill Howell conducted an 11-day kayaking tour of the Neuse. Accompanied by their dogs, Krop and Howell’s journey started in Smithfield and ended in New Bern. 

The trip provided Krop with a more comprehensive understanding of the river’s condition.

“When I think about river of the year, I think about a river that is both worth celebrating because it’s come so far, and also a river that has its problems,” she said. “And, so I think part of this journey was to sort of highlight what’s worth celebrating, and [the] work that still has yet to be done.”

Though keeping the Neuse River free of pollutants is an ongoing task, what Krop witnessed on the journey surpassed her initial expectations.

“I had [a preconceived] image of the Neuse [being] more fraught and more kind of visibly in turmoil than I think I saw on the river. I mean, paddling for 11 days, we hardly saw any significant industry,” she said. “The [issue] that we did see [was] worth noting, because it was unique and stood out from what was pretty much undeveloped green for most of the way on the river.”

The Neuse River as seen from the kayaks of the Neuse and Pamlico-Tar riverkeepers (Samantha Krop, Jill Howell). The image was taken during the pairs 11-day kayaking trip on the Neuse. Credit: Samanth Krop

“I guess I was just surprised at how absolutely wild and beautiful the entire journey was.”

The issue Krop is alluding to is what she described as a “point source violation” that they noticed at the Busco Beach ATV Park located in Goldsboro.

“What was shocking to us was that there [are] some significant buffer violations going on, where folks were riding ATVs, literally into the river,” Krop said. “You can see the thick mud coming from these two kind of decaying, degrading edges and ridges pouring into the river … it’s a muddy soup.” 

“That’s a Clean Water Act violation, a buffer violation.”

Krop also said that inspecting the river by kayak helped her see things, such as the erosion, that she missed when she previously inspected the same area by plane.

Grading the river

While many are enthusiastic about how much progress the Neuse River has achieved with the assistance of federal and state agencies, and advocacy groups, there are some that say the river is still suffering from some of the same issues that plagued it 50 and even 10 years ago.

“[After] sampling the Neuse lower river and estuary for the past nearly 25 years, I have not seen improvement in the Neuse, especially from nonpoint pollution sources,” said JoAnn Burkholder, director of NC State University Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology.

However, Burkholder says that some point source contributors have worked hard to clean up their act.

“The point sources, the sewage treatment plants have really tried to upgrade and some of them — because it’s expensive to treat sewage — have done really well institut[ing] something called biological nutrient removal,” she said. “It’s a process that really removes a lot of pollution from the sewage, a lot more than normal treatment.”

Burkholder says that non-point source entities, such as poultry and hog farms, are big contributors of phosphorus and nitrogen that end up in the river. She points to a 2012 study which evaluated an earlier report that measured the river’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) which is the total amount of pollutants a water source can manage without exceeding water quality standards. 

The study tracked the river’s TMDL from 1998-2003 and showed that the Neuse was successfully managing its TMDL. However, Burkholder said that a drought during the five-year period skewed the results.

“So it’s like squeezing the pipe, all of a sudden all sorts of runoff isn’t going in, and it looks like things have dramatically improved, but they really haven’t.”

Additionally, Burkholder said during the original TMDL study pollutants from CAFOs were not included. When this was pointed out, the EPA allowed scientists to recalculate the contaminant load, which revealed that the river had actually failed the TMDL study.

Along with sewage treatment plants, Burkholder says that “cropland farmers” have taken steps in the right direction in reducing contaminant inputs into the river, but she is not ready to offer the Neuse a passing grade just yet.

“There hasn’t been very much work on other non-point pollution in the lower Neuse, so I reserve judgment,” she said. “I’d like to believe that the Neuse is doing better, but I have not seen that.”

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Will Atwater

Will Atwater has spent the past decade working with educators, artists and community-based organizations as a short-form documentary and promotional video producer. A native North Carolinian, Will grew...