Citizens want Chatham to spend $50K on another biological study of the Rocky River

Pittsboro, NC – During the March 18 Chatham county commissioners meeting several citizens recommended that the county pay for another Rocky River study. Below are the comments from the public hearing portion of the meeting.

Karen Luciano submitted the following comments:

My name is Karen Luciano. I live at 234 Rocky Falls Lane. I am here today with four other people to ask the Board of Commissioners to fund a second biological study of the Rocky River. When George Lucier was chairman of the Board, the County allocated $30,000 for the first study. The study, entitled the “Rocky RiverSubbasin Aquatic Taxa Surveys” was completed in July 2010. Copies of the executive summary are available for you now. In this regards we are asking you to formally place on the April County agenda a review, and hopefully approval, of our proposal. So that valid comparisons can be made between the first and second surveys, we recommend the second survey use the same methodology as used by Alderman Environmental Services which conducted the first survey. The study should be undertaken as soon as possible before nitrogen pollution from the Mountaire chicken plant leads to massive algae growths and further biological decline of the River.

The study would be undertaken by Chatham County and then contracted out. The cost would be somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000. The study would include freshwater mussels, snails, crayfish, macroinvertibrates and fish at the 32 sites in the 2010 study.

The findings of the 2010 study can be summarized in three sentences. 1) Of the 21 invertebrate species studied, only four might remain in the foreseeable future. 2) Of the 24 fish species studies, diversity is good. 3) However, overall, signs of biological decline are obvious.

The purpose of the second study would be to determine whether various species – including rare and endangered species – have rebounded after the closure of the Townsends and Pilgrims Pride chicken slaughtering plants. The County gave a $1,500,000 tax concession to Mountaire. Unfortunately, this tax concession indirectly impacts the nitrogen pollution of the river because it did not require Mountaire to reduce its nitrogen discharges. This tax concession is an amount 21 to 30 times greater than the cost of the proposed taxa survey.In an age of rapid climate change, innovative actions by all governments to protect natural resources is essential. Chatham County should be, and needs to be, in the forefront of those actions to protect our magnificent natural resources which obviously includes our Rocky River.

Debbie Wakefield submitted the following comments:

My name is Debby Wakefield. I live in Chatham County at 384 Rainy Day Farm Drive, Sanford, NC 27330. I also think Chatham County should finance a second biological study of the Rocky River. I am here today to give you three reasons this should be done as soon as possible.First, while we welcome Mountaire Farms and the jobs it will create, we do not welcome the flood of nitrogen pollution Mountaire will pour into the Rocky River. This flood of nitrogen will occur because the N.C. Division of Water Resources proposes to issue a permit to the Siler City Wastewater Treatment plant that will allow nitrogen discharges into the River to be 50% higher than they were when Townsends and Pilgrim’s Pride were in operation. This higher level of nitrogen pollution will be allowed for at least four years and perhaps longer if the proposed upgrades of the Treatment Plant are not undertaken on schedule.If upgrades to the Wastewater Treatment Plant are taken on schedule the proposed State discharge permit will still allow nitrogen pollution to be nearly the same as they were when Townsends and Pilgrim’s Pride were open. When these plants were open, the nitrogen pollution they discharged resulted in the River below Siler City being clogged with algae in warmer months. Although State water quality standards classify the Rocky River, as being suitable for secondary recreation, this excessive algae made secondary recreation activities – fishing, wading and boating – nearly impossible. As the algae died, it also reduced oxygen levels in the water and contributed to population declines of various aquatic species.Second, a biological study should be approved because Mountaire Farms will result in more chicken operations in the Rocky River watershed. This increase in chicken farming will lead to more nutrient runoff into local streams and into the Rocky River. This will further damage the biological health of the river and increase the need for biological monitoring of the type the State does not undertake.Finally, we need to consider the impacts of climate change including hotter water temperatures, lower water oxygen levels, and more extremes in high and low flows in the River resulting from more extremes in rainfall and droughts. Over the years, these impacts will send the Rocky River into a downward biological spiral that will be made worse by nitrogen pollution. The ability Chatham County and state agencies to moderate this biological decline can be improved by timely biological surveys of the type we are proposing today. Although Chatham County has limited legal authority to manage water quality in the Rocky River, the County can still be instrumental if it chooses to be a little bold. We will highlight this later. For these reasons, I hope you will reauthorize the biological survey at your next meeting.

Nita Dukes submitted the following comments:

My name is Nita Dukes. I live at 194 N. Hillcrest Rd., Siler City, NC. As we know, water quality management is primarily the responsibility of the State. The State does not, however, undertake the type of biological survey we are proposing. If we want to know what the biological health of the Rocky River truly is, Chatham County will have to step up to the plate once again and finance such a study. I will give you five specific reasons why this is true.First, typical information collected by the State or the Upper Cape Fear River Basin Association such as nitrates, nitrates, biological oxygen demand, micro invertebrates etc. cannot give an accurate picture of the biological health of the Rocky River. One reason they cannot is toxic spills. These spills occur off and on and wipe out fish and other aquatic populations. Unless a taxa survey is undertaken we have no credible way of knowing what the biological health of the river will be after such events. In the Rocky River I know of three such events involving an ethanol mash spill, a textile dye spill and a Townsend sludge spill. For this reason along, biological surveys are invaluable.Second, while water quality studies can tell us whether the aquatic environment should be able to support a healthy biological community, it cannot tell us whether this hospitable environment actually does support such a healthy biological community. This is true because chemical and nutrient spikes and oxygen sags occur between scheduled water quality tests. These spikes and sags can reduce biodiversity and the health of any one species.Third, the Upper Cape Fear Basin Association does not undertake taxa surveys. Association tests focuse on water quality assessments.Fourth, such biological surveys the State undertakes are much smaller in scope than the 2010 survey. This is because (1) they have not included the entire subbasin, (2) they have been limited to only perhaps six or seven sites rather than the 32 sites included in the 2010 surveys, and (3) they have not included the full range of mussels, clams, crayfish, snails and fish and that were included in the 2010 surveys. In this regards it is important to note that the monitoring of fish and mussel populations the State has undertaken has been reduced since 2010. For this reason, County monitoring becomes even more important.Finally, according to the Cape Fear River Basin planning staff, the State will not include biological monitoring in the long delayed NC Nutrient Criteria Development Plan. If and when this nutrient study occurs, the study will focus mainly on nitrogen. For these four reasons, a County sponsored biological study is needed.

Kathleen Hundley submitted the following comments:

My name is Kathleen Hundley. I live at 136 Rocky Falls Rd. Tonight I am going to take you on a verbal canoe trip down the Rocky River so you can see what this river is like. We will journey 37 miles through five segments of the River.First, let us begin in southern Alamance and northern Chatham Counties. Here, in this headwater area you will see two small streams flowing through woods, fields and meadows laden with sediment and nutrients from area farm – especially after rains.Second, let us float through the shallow upper Siler City water supply reservoir. Here nutrients and sediments from the headwaters lead to excessive nutrients and algae in the reservoir. This has led the State to classify the reservoir as being “impaired” because it does not meet State water quality standards.Third, we now paddle through the lower water supply reservoir called the Charles Turner Reservoir. This reservoir also has excessive nutrients and, probably will be designated as being “impaired” in the foreseeable future.Fourth, we paddle and portage five miles downstream where we float under Highway 64, and canoe pass Loves Creek-where wastewater from Siler City enters the Rocky River – and then we take a break at Varnel Creek. The State has designated this five mile stretch of the River as being impaired because the dissolved oxygen in the River is lower than State standards which itself, is lower than the level recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This low level of oxygen damages the biological health of the River. To make matters worse, the excessive nitrogen flowing into the River from Loves Creek promotes excessive algae growth all the way to the Deep River … about 18 miles downstream.Five, finally we meander about 18 miles downstream to the confluence with the Deep River. This section of the River harbors the endangered Cape fear Shiner and below U.S. Highway 15/501 is considered by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program to be a biological area of outstanding quality. In the past, this section was covered with algae in warmer months due to nitrogen pollution from the Townsend and Pilgrim’s Pride plants before they closed in 2011. This made secondary recreational activities – boating, fishing, and wading – almost impossible- even though State water quality standards say they should be easily possible. Also, as the algae died, it reduced oxygen levels and damaged the biological health of the River even more.When Mountaire gets into full operation and releases even more nitrogen, this situation will be worse. For this reason, I ask you to fund a second biological survey so that local and State agencies will the information they will need to protect the Rocky River.

Sonny Keisler submitted the following comments:

My name is Sonny Keisler. I live in Chatham County at 3006 River Forks Rd. Sanford, NC 27330. Tonight I wish to make one point: Chatham County can help protect the biological health of the Rocky River if it chooses to do so. A good starting point would be to fund a second biological study of the River and then use the information to help guide County economic development activities.We all know that North Carolina is not a home rule state, that the State controls water quality management, and that County does not have jurisdiction over the Rocky River in the Siler City jurisdictional area. All of this limits what the County can do. However, these limits do not prohibit the County from being an active partner in the management of the biological health of the Rocky River.

I will mention three reasons why this is true.

First, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a February 7 letter and the N.C Wildlife Resources Commission in a January 24th memorandum state that the impact of nitrogen pollution on the Rocky River from Mountaire Farms will likely be equal to or greater than the impact on the Rocky River from the Townsends and Pilgrims Pride chicken slaughtering plants. So as to offset this impact, both agencies recommend the Chatham Soil and Water Conservation District promote best management practices that could reduce nutrient flows from biosolids, animal wastes and fertilizer applications on farms, residential areas and forests. I would think the Chatham County Board of Commissioners could find ways to encourage not only the Soil and Water Conservation District, but also the Cooperative Extension Service, the Agricultural Advisory Board and, perhaps other agencies to help implement these best management practices in the watershed.

Second, the County could guide economic development in ways that protects the Rocky River. This could include county investments in the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site, water and sewer lines and any future requests for property tax concessions. In these cases the biological study could help ensure County economic development.

Third, the biological study could help guide land use planning and site design approvals. In this regard, the study could be used to promote land uses that minimized nutrient pollution and sedimentation.

In terms of financing, the study could be financed by tax revenues or by grants from third party organizations or by one or more large landowners in the Rocky River basin. Because the study is important, the County should place our proposal on the April County agenda and explore all options as soon as possible