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Haw River water quality continues to improve

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Saturday, June 25, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - Debates on recent changes in Chatham County bureaucracy raise the question of the actual state of the water in the Haw River. Considering the alarmist warnings that the changes will degrade water quality, the future promises to continue the improvements seen over the past twenty years.

Pittsboro, the first user of drinking water on the river, has clean treated water. If its water quality is compromised, the town quickly and honestly notifies its residents and secures a solution.

On the whole, the water at the intake is clean, per reports from the Water Quality Section of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. According to the “Basinwide Assessment Report, Cape Fear Basin,” the condition of water at Bynum is good. Testing stations are located on the river and tributaries in one hundred three sites. There are one hundred twenty-four permitted dischargers, with nineteen above the Pittsboro water intake at Bynum. While this report summarizes results of testing for a period of eighteen years, 1980 - 1998, other subsequent reports cover up to 2009.

In the sector representing the Haw to Bynum, there are readings which indicate water quality is sound. The main sources of nutrients and metals are the Greensboro wastewater treatment facilities which raises levels at Little Troublesome, North Buffalo, South Buffalo, Reedy Fork creeks. By the time the river processes them at Haw River and Saxapahaw, Bynum sees significantly decreased pollutants.

Testing parameters include chemicals, metals, nutrients, and biological indicators, such as fish skin, invertebrates, and mollusks.

The testing shows levels which are good by comparison to stations above Bynum, registering results from 1980 to 1998. Quoted results are from 1998 or a range including 1998. The pH is high at 7.3 to 7.8. Dissolved oxygen is in line with lower Haw basin stations, but above those near Greensboro, 8.3 to 10.3 mg/liter. Conductivity is low, 160 to 320 mmhos/cm squared.

Nitrate and nitrite are low, near .1. Total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN, organic nitrogen) is average at 1 % to 1.5 %. Total phosphorus is low to average at .25 %. Fecal coliform counts range from 100 to 200 colonies per 100 ml. The Moncure station registers better than Bynum, as would be expected with miles downstream.

Test results from 1999 to 2003 are steady to improving. PH maintains at 7.4 to 7.8. Dissolved oxygen is high compared to all stations above Haywood at 9 to 12 mg/liter. Conductivity has increased slightly to a range of 160 to 380 mmhos/cm squared. Nitrate and nitrite are the same at .1. TKN is down at .6 %. Total phosphorus is down, below .2 %. Fecal coliform count range is below ten colonies to just over 110 per ml. These results are an average from 1998 to 2003.

Results from 2004 through 2009 show improvement again for the Bynum, middle Haw portion:

  • pH from 6.9 to 8.8
  • Dissolved oxygen 8 - 12, as high as 14 mg/liter
  • Conductivity 160 to 360 mmhos/cm squared
  • N .3 - .6%
  • TKN .33 to .8 %
  • P .1 - .2%
  • Fecal coliform 11 - 110 colonies/ml.

Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury are all below detection limits. Manganese, iron, copper are on the lower end of the scale for all testing sites described and below drinking water standards. Fecal coliform colonies test at the low end of the scale, below most sites published.

The trend of pollutants over the twenty-nine year period is downward and the general health of the river is up. Phosphorus drops by eighty percent. TKN by sixty percent. PH increased by twelve percent, conductivity by thirty-three percent, and nitrogen up three to six times, still below allowable limits. Dissolved oxygen increased by twenty to fifty percent. Fecal coliform colonies drop steadily over the thirty year testing period, dropping by fifty to ninety-five percent. In fact, most indicators favor a report of steady and large scale improvement.

Required testing of wastewater treatment plants also yields a positive profile. The 2004 DENR Basinwide Assessment Report showed a ninety-six percent compliance for eighty-five facilities.

The March 2009 report claimed one hundred percent compliance for the same plants. Both reports stated trouble in compliance for the decade of the 1990's. Major dischargers have improved their effluent, changing the drinking water forecast for the Haw River.

All these tests are quoted at relative measurements and are approximate, but in sufficient details for comparison. Results are based on Water Quality Section of DENR publications and grab sample testing by WQ DENR and a new coalition of DENR, permitted facilities, and river watch groups.

Control of erosion and suspected pollution sources within the county will not help the quality of the water drawn from the river at Bynum, Jordan Lake or the Siler City uptake on the Rocky River. These depend on dischargers upstream. The source of Pittsboro’s water supply is protected by improvements of major dischargers, the self cleaning action of the Haw and by low concentrations of pollutants, independent of what is done in Chatham. Pollution has improved greatly by the disappearance of industry up river. These effects can be witnessed by testing results at the different stations. The farther from the source, the better the test results are.

This report does not say that all water quality standards should be abandoned. However, unfounded claims of wanton disregard for human health need a sound scientific basis to justify regulatory action and restrictive planning and zoning standards.

Chatham’s economy has been buoyed by residential development in recent years. Although this growth has increased the net county worth, tax burden falls exclusively on homeowners rather than industry or commerce. Fifty years ago, this status was reversed and homeowners paid very reasonable taxes. Restrictive building policy, burdensome permitting process, numerous committees which impact the developer, and disappearance of industry all combine to raise building and development costs as well as taxes. The effect is that business people have decided that Chatham is too costly.

The financial impact of the permitting process becomes a burden when the process is extended. Delays cost time. Time costs money. The process needs simplification, a short application to permit time, and reasonable standards which are all published before the application is submitted. These simple changes will allow an investor to account for development costs, which effect profitability and “sustainability,”or, for those who do not like that term-du-jour, survival.

The Haw River seems to be fine, certainly better than when there were dozens of mills above the water uptake at Bynum. Mondays no longer dye the river the same color as the cloth run the week before. Jordan Lake also tests well as does the Rocky River. Our water resources are in good condition and better than they were, certainly better than the health of the taxpayer.

In words that George Bush, Sr. might say, “Water quality good. Lousy permitting bad.”

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Haw River water quality continues to improve