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The Neuse: River Of The Year
National recognition for local waters
October 18, 2022

og waste, textile runoff, coal ash, sewage overflow. There was a time when it all flowed into the Neuse River.

But on the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the Neuse River has a new designation – River of the Year.

The award comes from American Rivers, a non-profit river conservation organization founded in 1973.

Usually, American Rivers publishes a list of the Most Endangered Rivers. The Neuse River is only the third such body of water to receive the designation of River of the Year.

Fishing trawler Capt Ben preparing to fish on the Neuse.

The Cuyahoga River in Ohio received the designation in 2019, and the Delaware River got the honor in 2020.

“The Neuse shows what’s possible when strong federal clean water safeguards meet innovative, community-led solutions,” said Samantha Krop, Sound Rivers’ Neuse Riverkeeper. “And we have more work to do. Frontline communities have long been burdened by pollution and flooding. We must uphold clean water safeguards. Now is not the time to turn back the clock on protections for clean water and public health.”

At about six miles across, the Neuse is the widest river in the United States. That’s only at the river’s mouth where it meets the Pamlico Sound.

The Neuse River Junction, marking where the Neuse River meets the Pamlico Sound.

For most of its winding journey from the confluence of the Flat and Eno rivers near Durham on down to New Bern, this river is little more than a creek.

The Neuse enters Pamlico Sound just east of Maw Point Shoal, a 275 mile journey to the Neuse River Junction.

The Clean Water Act was a catalyst for cleaning up a river watershed that provides drinking water to over 2.5 million people.

In 1997, the NC Environmental Management Commission declared the Neuse to be ‘nutrient sensitive’. State rules were put in place to drastically reduce the amount of nutrient pollution in the river – caused by runoff from fertilizer, farms, wastewater and more.

A storm gathering off the Neuse riverfront.

“What drove all of those rules and resulted in a pretty massive nutrient reduction in the Neuse was the Clean Water Act. The nutrient rules were state rules, but they were borne out of the Clean Water Act because the state was failing to meet the federal standards,” said Sound Rivers’ Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop. “There were significant investments to wastewater treatments plants, particularly in large cities.”

These rules, along with the Clean Water Act, continue to keep working for the rivers; Duke Energy entered into a settlement with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to clean up six of its coal ash pits.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates Coal Ash, recognizing it as “one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the United States.”

The Neuse River starts inland, just above Durham and runs east to the Pamlico Sound. Neuse River graphic courtesy WRAL.

Coal ash from the pits “inundated the Neuse after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, sending heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, and mercury into the river just 10 miles upstream from the City of Goldsboro’s municipal water intake,” according to Sound Rivers.

Despite strides made to clean up the rivers, problems still exist. Sound Rivers cites a thriving industry of CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. In more rural areas, these operations continue to have a negative effect on water and air quality.

The law lacks provisions for “non-point sources of pollution”; instances of sewage spills due to flooding or aging facilities or both, and spills from CAFOs.

Ferry ride across the Neuse River from Minnesott Beach to Cherry Branch ferry terminal.

“River of the Year is a celebration of the value an iconic American river provides to the communities that depend on it. The Neuse River has been at the forefront of restoration efforts that have their roots in the federal Clean Water Act, as well as showing the continuing need for the Clean Water Act to be refined, to deliver on the promise of clean water for communities of color that have faced systemic environmental injustice and continue to bear the brunt of river pollution and increased flooding,” said Peter Raabe, American Rivers’ southeast regional director. “There are numerous success stories that can be told across the entire watershed and there is a core set of people that passionately advocate for the river in those places where more work is needed. It is a jewel that the whole country should know about.”

“We still need to defend the Clean Water Act. We don’t want to live in a world where it’s gone because strong, federal clean-water laws are essential,” said Krop. “Now is not the time to turn back the protections to clean water.”

Posted Tuesday October 18, 2022 by Keith N. Smith

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