Our View: The Little River could use a helping hand

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Growth has been good to the Albemarle over the years with new housing, more places to shop and better roads.

But progress has taken a toll on the waterways that we enjoy.

The paradox is, the more we grow, the more pollution we produce — and as trees and swamps make way for pavement and buildings, that means less filtration of the pollutants that flow into the waterways.

Although our public officials are well-versed in environmental regulations, it may be time to take a renewed look to see if more can’t be done to prevent river pollution in the first place.

Recently, two conservation groups announced plans to form a group to clean up the Little River, a waterway that divides Perquimans and Pasquotank counties and empties into the Albemarle Sound.

The Pasquotank Soil and Water Conservation District and Albemarle Resource Development Council have kicked off “The Little River Water Quality Initiative.”

The river was placed on the list of impaired waterways by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environment and Natural Resources in both 2010 and 2012 due to excess chlorophyll, a nutrient that in excess can cause algae blooms to form and choke a waterway of its life-supporting oxygen, according to Susan Massengale, spokeswoman for the state Division of Water Quality.

There are a number of possible pollution sources — some easily traceable and others not. For example, there are still a number of leaky septic systems throughout the region; farms use varying amounts of nutrient fertilizers; and construction produces sediment, some of which is washed away with the rain and into gullies that lead directly to a river.

Nature’s filters — swampland, trees and brush — act as a buffer to soak up pollutants and dilute them. But with fewer buffers, that means more contaminants running straight into the river unfiltered.

Massengale said the chlorophyll levels in the Little River are high enough to warrant adding it to its list of impaired waterways, but not high enough to prompt warnings against fishing and recreational use. Algae blooms could occur periodically.

“They are not impaired for anything health-wise or life threatening,” she said.

The Little River isn’t the only waterway that has made the state and federal lists of impaired waterways.

Sections of the Pasquotank and Chowan Rivers, the Albemarle Sound and Coinjock Bay are also on that list, due to excess amounts of various pollutants.

Meanwhile, the new coalition will include partners such as Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, Elizabeth City State University, Pasquotank and Perquimans schools, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, N.C. State University and local landowners.

While its focus will be on cleaning up the Little River and having it removed from the list of impaired waterways, its efforts can be used to produce results for other waterways.

“The most important part is contacting landowners, making them aware of it, and trying to get them to participate,” said organizer Dwane Hinson, a technician for the soil and water conservation district.

Exactly what steps will be taken remains to be seen. But part of the overall effort will be to design drainage systems that prevent pollution-laden stormwater runoff from running unimpeded into the river.

There are many so-called “best management practices” that include buffers and diversions that can be employed to achieve that, Hinson said.

In the past several years, locally elected officials have become well-versed with some of the technical language used to develop new flood maps that were required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That along with their lifelong knowledge of flooding that occurs because we live in a flat terrain can help them to ask the right questions in search of how to better keep our waterways clean.

The Outer Banks has experienced tremendous growth in the past 30 years, and strict controls have been put into place to protect the water quality there.

We are just a short drive from there and have an abundance of waterways that provide recreational opportunities.

Whether it’s tubing down a river, fishing along the banks of a stream or paddling down a creek or canal, our waterways are a big asset. Let’s keep it that way, and not let it turn into a liability.