More than 1,200 new miles of NC rivers, streams proposed for impaired waters list

The draft impaired waters list is open for public comment through tomorrow, Friday, Jan. 18. Comments can be emailed to TMDL303dComments@ncdenr.gov.

North Carolina has more miles of impaired waters than two years ago, with the White Oak, Neuse and Cape Fear River basins in the eastern part of the state facing significant water quality problems.

Nearly 1,250 new miles of rivers — the distance between Raleigh and Dallas — could be classified as impaired in North Carolina, according to the state’s draft impaired waters list, a net increase of nearly a third since the previous document was released in 2017. There are 37,853 miles of rivers in North Carolina.

The net number of impaired acres, which includes lakes, reservoirs, shellfish growing areas, estuaries, and mouths of rivers that enter those waterbodies, decreased by more than a third, from 570,293 acres to 367,383.

Impaired waters, then and now

Miles of waterbodies on current impaired waters list: 2,619Acres of waterbodies on current impaired waters list: 570,293
Miles to be added, draft list: 1,248Acres to be added, draft list: 65,162
Miles to be delisted, draft: 420Acres to be delisted, draft: 268,072
Net total, listed miles: 3,447Net total, listed acres: 367,383
Net increase, miles: 828Net decrease, acres: 202,910

The impaired waters list is also known as a 303 (d) list, required under the Clean Water Act. The list is issued every two years by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, but must be approved by the EPA.  The 303(d) list can include entire waterbody, such as Lake Mattamuskeet, which contains higher than permitted levels of chlorophyl a, a measurement of algae. More often, segments of waterbodies are listed as deficient. For example, in the western part of the state, 29 miles of the Rocky River, from the mouth of Island Creek to the Pee Dee River, is proposed for the list because of exceedances of dissolved copper.

If a waterbody is listed, state environmental regulators are required to develop and implement a plan to limit the pollutants to meet water quality standards. This is known as a TMDL, or total maximum daily load. Impairments and the TMDL are based on the designated uses for the water, such as drinking, food processing, fishing, recreation and shellfish harvesting.

The impairments are also based on certain parameters, including chemical contaminants like copper, nickel, PCBs, and mercury that are discharged or emitted by industrial sources. Other parameters are nitrogen, phosphorus, and fecal coliform — a type of harmful bacteria — that can indicate agricultural runoff. Low levels of dissolved oxygen, high acidity, warmer than acceptable water temperatures, turbidity — or cloudiness — can harm aquatic life.

Number of waterbody segments on the draft 303(d) list, per river basin: Broad, Chowan, Cape Fear, Catawba, French Broad, Hiwassee, Lumber, Little Tennessee, Neuse, New, Pasquotank, Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, Watauga, White Oak, Yadkin (Source: NC DEQ)

However, waterbodies that aren’t on the 303 (d) list still can be polluted. Sometimes there isn’t enough data to determine whether a river or lake should be listed. In other cases, regulators could argue that other methods besides establishing a TMDL could achieve similar water quality results over time.

Several waterbodies proposed for the new list lie within areas slated for public projects. In southern Wake County, a portion of Swift Creek that meets the backwaters is proposed for the list because water quality is inadequate to fully support fish habitats. Yet the Complete 540 toll road project could further degrade water quality in Swift Creek.

A segment of Little Troublesome Creek from the Reidsville wastewater treatment plan downstream about five miles, is also proposed for the list because of turbidity. The creek could be crossed by the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline, depending on the routing and federal and state approval process.

Segments of Stocking Head Creek in Duplin County are also proposed for the list. As Policy Watch reported in December, monitoring of streams in the Stocking Head Creek watershed indicate high levels of pollution, possibly from the concentrated feeding operations — swine and poultry, in particular, in the area. Agricultural runoff is a primary source of pollution in eastern North Carolina, while industrial sources are more common near urban areas, including the Triangle, the Triad and Charlotte.

There are many waterbodies coming off the list, as well, but that doesn’t mean they are pristine. More than 1,400 aces of New Hope Creek, which includes an arm of Jordan Lake, are being delisted because the EPA has approved a TMDL, and it has been completed. A five-mile segment of Third Fork Creek, which lies in a heavily developed area in southern Durham County, is being delisted for copper because “available data is insufficient to determine attainment status.”

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