Threats

“We appreciate the Yadkin Riverkeeper's efforts to protect and preserve this important natural resource and the communities that rely on it for its recreational value, drinking water source, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.”

--G. Alan Farmer, EPA Region IV Director, January 17th, 2012

Today the Yadkin Pee Dee River basin supports about 1.6 million people, and over the next 25 years, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, that figure is expected to increase by fifty percent.

Much of the anticipated growth will come from new development, as the state now ranks first in the nation in terms of projected economic expansion over the next quarter century. Unless we plan for such rapid growth, both the economy and our natural resources will be stretched beyond the breaking point. Below is a list of threats to the river that highlight the need for action. Yadkin Riverkeeper® is working to counter these effects through education, action and advocacy.

Urbanization and the Lakes Region
Clearly, urbanization has the greatest impact on our watershed; not only because buildings, roads, and parking lots replace the vegetative buffers along streams and rivers, but because these impervious surfaces channel runoff from storms and sewers directly into the watershed.  As the development in our region continues to accelerate, these harmful effects will spread over the entire region.

At this point, High Rock Lake is considered the watershed’s most threatened section, primarily due to high levels of nutrients, chlorophyll, turbidity, and percentage of dissolved oxygen beyond acceptable limits. In an average year, High Rock Lake retains over one million tons of sediment alone.  Even if no new discharge permits are allowed, the Lakes region will continue to suffer the disastrous effects of overdevelopment well into the future.

Recently High Rock was classified a “303(d)” impaired resource water, which is an important federal designation under the Clean Water Act that will ensure federal cost-share assistance.  This is an important designation.  To reverse the large-scale damage in one area of the watershed, we must also address the upstream issues as well.

Another serious problem for the Lakes region is the high level of toxic mercury in certain fish species. The North Carolina Division of Public Health has issued broad public warnings regarding the consumption of fish caught anywhere east and south of Interstate 85.

Pollution Sources
The watershed suffers from both point source and non-point source pollution.  Point sources include piped discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants, industrial facilities, and large storm water systems.  Timber harvesting, agriculture, construction of roads, buildings and parking lots, failing septic systems, and hydrological modifications, like dredging, channelization, and impoundments, all contribute to the problem of non-point source pollution in our region.

While each regulated point-source discharger must obtain a permit from the State, the sources of non-point source pollution are more diffuse and less predictable, depending on rainfall patterns and land disturbance activities. Consequently, the effects of non-point source pollution are more difficult and expensive to quantify.  For example, fecal coliform bacterial growth is delivered in urban stormwater, from improperly treated wastewater facilities, and inadequately managed livestock operations.

Widespread Degraded Habitat
A major threat to our watershed is habitat degradation, defined as a “notable change in habitat diversity or negative change in habitat.”  As more of our woodland and riparian vegetation disappears along the river, the negative effects of channelization, bank erosion, sedimentation, and interrupted flow become more apparent.

The primary causes of habitat degradation in the Yadkin Pee Dee River Basin are land-disturbance activities, such as construction of roads and buildings, in-stream mining operations, logging activities, and agriculture, including crop and livestock production, particularly corn, tobacco, cattle and poultry operations, along the river and its tributaries.

Poorly managed agricultural and wastewater facilities have increased the levels of organic nutrients in the river, which has influenced the level of “dissolved oxygen” critical to the survival of aquatic life in our watershed.

Ecological Breakdown
Without good in-stream habitat, the watershed’s normal aquatic processes are interrupted, particularly as the organic “micro” and “edge” habitats along smaller streams and tributaries are disturbed or eliminated, directly impacting insect populations throughout the basin, and consequently the entire “food chain."

Already this ecological imbalance threatens our health and economy.  For example, largemouth bass are a major attraction for sport fishing in the Yadkin Lakes Region.  The consumption of largemouth bass is no longer recommended for pregnant or nursing mothers and children, due to high levels of toxic mercury coming from industrial atmospheric pollutants.  There are also many tributaries that are threatened.  Swimming advisories are posted in the upper watershed including places long used as swimming holes such as Elk’s Creek.

Classifying Effects
Recently, in order to assess the overall health of the watershed ecosystem (including human health risks), the North Carolina Division of Water Quality implemented a rating and monitoring system to assess the critical factors related to actual “use” of the river. The following are test results:

  • Aquatic life/secondary recreation (native ecology) - approximately 37 percent of stream miles (2,182) monitored, 17 percent of which were classified as “Impaired”, and 91 percent of lake acres (21,020) monitored, 56 percent of which were classified as Impaired.
  • Fish consumption - although fish tissue was monitored in only a small percent of stream miles (6.3) and lake acres (67), the results confirmed 100 percent of these fisheries are "impaired" (some toxins present).  Due to the high levels of mercury present, almost the entire Lakes region is considered “impaired” for fishing purposes.
  • Primary recreation (mainly swimming) - approximately 28 percent of stream miles (61.5) monitored, 14.5 percent of which are considered 'impaired."

Climate Change
In summary, all the local threats are compounded by the larger global issues.  These widespread “local” threats have far-reaching consequences, as the condition of streams, rivers and lakes ultimately determine the quality of life over all of the river basin.  The river’s health affects not only recreational opportunities but drinking water for future generations.

Because of the recent, observable changes in our global climate, and the increased severe drought conditions throughout the southeastern U.S., a supply problem exacerbated by accelerating development throughout the region, we may expect a deficit that will persist well into the future.  This holds true even if rainfall levels increase over the short term.

To imagine how this supply crisis will play out, consider the recent controversy over “interbasin transfers” (IBTs) in our region.  The present litigation to prevent the daily extraction of ten million gallons from the Yadkin River to support economic expansions in Kannapolis and Concord presents but one example of the growing pressure.  These kinds of water resource battles will continue to confront our region.

It is the responsibility of each resident and visitor to consider his or her individual impact on the watershed.  But it is also the cumulative effects from all these land use activities that cause the most severe and long-lasting impact on our watershed—which emphasizes the critical importance of having an organization such as Yadkin Riverkeeper to act as the watchdog and enforcer when these activities have a negative impact on the basin.

These insidious problems not only affect our wildlife; in reality the condition of streams, rivers and lakes will ultimately determine the quality of life throughout the basin, especially the wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and drinking water for future generations.

For more information about the threats to the Yadkin Pee Dee River please read "A River in Jeopardy."