And now, a midweek break from politics ... with pictures.

The following "leisure read" is one day of Dean Naujok's journals from the 2006 Tour de Neuse -- an annual paddle trip down the Neuse River in the spring. Adair Pickard, a member of the DWJC was among the paddlers in this section, as was Mayor Don Rains of Princeton.

Each day's journal entry offers the reader an education in things he would otherwise never know. For instance, did you know that development run-off over recent years has so silted the Neuse river that our section of the river no longer has many fish or mussels in it at all? Tell that to Fred Smith and the County Commissioners and see if any of them act like they give a damn.

Ooops. This is supposed to be a break from politics, isn't it?

Mr. Naujoks, the paddle guide, is the Neuse River Foundation's Upper Neuse RiverKeeper. He is working to preserve the river and to help make the world a better place for those who come after.  Learn how you can help turn back the clock, help our county and town officials clean up the water, and make a way for fish and mussels to return to their ancestral home in the Neuse River. This is a "good work" that will take a lifetime, but it will be a lifetime well spent.

"Tour de Neuse" Day 8

Highway 42 to Smithfield Commons

We opened Tour de Neuse to the public again today. Princeton Mayor Don Rains, his son Landon, Joe Morgan, Adair Pickard, Mike Reeves, two pastors—Bobby Fletcher and Lee Eames and Monica Chen from the Smithfield Herald joined us. We were also blessed with another beautiful day on the river. Frog Hollow Outfitters provided free canoes and kayaks to anyone willing to make a donation to the Neuse River Foundation. Monica had never been in a canoe or a kayak so I traded in my kayak to escort Monica down the river in a canoe. I gave her a dry bag for her camera, just in case. This section is a great section of the river. Plenty of little rock gardens with several little islands make this section unique. I have seen Bald Eagles on this stretch. We didn’t see one today, but we heard wild turkey gobbling from the river bank. We saw a large grey horn owl hooting from a tree branch, something you don’t always see in the middle of the day. Everyone in the group sat quietly in their boats listening to the owl as we floated by.

It was nice having a relatively small group. I was able to converse with everyone on the trip. We had two pastors with us on the trip. Lee was an avid outdoorsman who brought his fly rod and spoke about numerous river outings. Bobby was quiet and reserved, but both clearly enjoyed their time paddling the Neuse. It was turning out to be another easy day. The water levels were low. We ventually came to a small island in the river. I took the right channel, but the only current deep enough to carry us through was directly against the side of the island. No problem, except a tree had fallen over making for a tight squeeze under the tree. Monica looked a little concerned. I told her to do the limbo and lean back as we passed under the log. She did great, but when it was my turn to limbo under the log, we approached at an awkward angle. Our canoe hit the downed tree and quickly came to a stop. I grabbed the downed tree, trying to push us through, but the current slowly turned the canoe perpendicular to the current. Suddenly water was piling up against the side of the canoe threatening to roll us. I did not want to tell Monica this, but she could sense something was wrong. I held the tree and calmly asked Monica if her camera was secured in the dry bag. This should have tipped her off, but just when I thought we were going to dump, we somehow managed to pry ourselves off the tree. As quickly we had gotten into trouble, we were floating down stream again. We merged back with the other paddlers who had clearly taken the better route. I didn’t say anything. Monica seemed to be fine. Anyone who has paddled a lot knows you can dump at anytime, but I doubt Tour de Neuse would have gotten a favorable write up if I had forced Monica to swim the Neuse on her first trip downriver.

We pulled over for lunch at the Johnston County Water Treatment Plant. Monica had a ride waiting for her, so I was on my own the rest of the way. After lunch, I interviewed Mayor Raines. It was somewhat ironic that we were standing at the water plant that Princeton and many
other Johnston County Communities depend on for drinking water. Mayor Rains emphasized that good water quality (and quantity) in the Neuse River was important for Johnston County. “Water treatment plants can treat water, but if the water is bad to begin with, they can not do the job… the survival of our county which has grown by 50% in the last ten years, depends on good source water.” Mayor Rains stated the Neuse River is a “natural treasure.” He emphasized that his connection to the river and appreciation for the natural world developed as a child
growing up on the Little River, a major tributary of the Neuse River. He recently enjoyed a canoe trip down the Neuse “Let Lones” below Smithfield with the boy scouts. I wish all of our elected officials recognized that they have a personal obligation to take better care of
the Neuse River. Their constituency depends on it.

Mayor Rains (left) paddles with Pastor Lee Eames

When I first met Mayor Raines in 2003, Princeton’s sewage treatment plant had been out of compliance for more than a decade. Neuse River Foundation was in the process of challenging NPDES discharge permits of the worst actors in the Neuse Basin—Princeton being one of them. Previous administrations prior to Mayor Rains ignored the fact that the Princeton Sewage Plant was woefully out of compliance and polluting the river. In 2000 and in 2003, Neuse River Foundation reviewed all 400 NPDES discharge permits, ultimately challenging 25 of the worst chronic violators operating throughout the river basin when their permits came up for renewal. We called for public hearings so they could explain to the public why they were out of compliance and more importantly what they were going to do to get back into compliance. Neuse River Foundation members living near these facilities participated in the public hearings by asking their polluting neighbors to clean up their act. We feel citizen input is an important part of the NPDES permit review process. Permits are often renewed over and over again, with no regard to the histories of violations, unless citizens object. When the public demands accountability and improvement from permitted polluters, we have seen marked improvement both in their relationship with their neighbors and in their waste water systems. We made specific recommendations on what we would like to see to bring the bad actors into compliance. Out of the 25 permits we challenged, 22 dischargers had additional provisions added to their permits, such as additional monitoring requirements. Some developed a Waste Water Management Plan, several of whom are now operating in compliance with their permit. We were successful in getting the town of Kenly exempted from an $18,000 monitoring fine so they could invest the money back into plant upgrades. All in all, we did not get everything we hoped for and not every discharger is operating in compliance, but it was an important step in accountability. Letting them know they are being watched and that we are reviewing their permits is a big step toward compliance.

Paddling past housing development along the Neuse

Over the years, Neuse River Foundation has challenged and legally contested permits for towns like Cary, Raleigh, and Butner to name a few. We hold everyone accountable for cleaning up this river and will continue to do so. Mayor Raines had only recently been elected as town Mayor when he inherited the troubled Princeton plant. He was not aware the town had offended Neuse River Foundation and our down stream members. He graciously apologized and invited NRF member Terry Holston and my self to tour the Princeton Sewage Treatment Plant.
He aggressively worked to obtain more than $2 million in grants to bring Princeton’s plant into compliance. A large undertaking for a rural town of 600 people. His leadership is why Princeton is now in compliance. What started out as a rocky relationship between Princeton and Neuse River Foundation turned out to be a very positive experience for the river and provides economic stability for future growth in Princeton. “The good part is [the plant upgrades] are now part of our economic development plan, we have a state of the art plant and we can grow. With the old plant, we would probably be under a growth moratorium and Dean and I wouldn’t be speaking to each other.” Mayor Rains stated in the interview. We both erupted into laughter. I thanked him for joining Tour de Neuse and told him Neuse River Foundation greatly appreciated his commitment to upgrading the Princeton Sewage Treatment Plant.

Pastor Bobby Fletcher floats past a fishing shack

As we paddled on, I finally had a chance to talk with Pastor Bobby Fletcher. Naturally, our attention turned from his work as pastor back to the river when we he inquired about fish in the river. He seemed dismayed when he found out sediment from Wake County had virtually choked much of the life out of river. Many species of fish and mussels are no longer found in the main stem of the river due to heavy sediment loading, which the EPA considers the nations number 1 water pollution problem. Pollution like phosphorus will also attach to sediment particles as it is carried into our rivers and streams further exacerbating the problem. “I never really thought of sediment being such a problem.” He admitted. Bobby sat quietly for a moment giving it more thought as we drifted. “That is one thing I disagree with regarding the capitalist mentality that some one has the right to pollute or destroy something that benefits others.” He said. “This is a public resource. Everyone has the right to develop their property so long as it does not negatively impact others.” I said in agreement.

People often contact Riverkeeper’s because their property is being negatively impacted from someone else. I often wonder where are our political leaders who champion for property rights when it comes to developers but never seem to take a stand for people whose property is being negatively impacted from flood waters, stormwater or sediment from upstream development. Not only are their property rights often being ignored, but this river that serves so many is being negatively impacted. At one time, 180 foot barges used to travel all the way up to Smithfield, which is now impossible. Some of the old time Johnston County residents will tell you that many sections of the river used to be 8 to 10 feet deep. Now, most areas under normal flows are 2-3 feet deep. Johnston County is further contributing to this problem. One of the fastest growing counties in the state has only a few inspectors to patrol construction sites for sedimentation violations. This is such a significant problem state wide, six NC Riverkeeper programs are currently working on obtaining funding for the Muddy Water Watch project.

The goal of the Muddy Water Watch project is to train citizens so they can properly monitor constructions sites and identify poorly maintained sites to stop or atleast properly identify sediment violations. Our hope is to be more proactive in keeping sediment out of our rivers and streams. The Muddy Water Watch Project—originally called “Get the Dirt Out”— was developed in Atlanta by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper®. We hope to bring this program to NC before our rivers suffer the same fate as the Chattahoochee River, which has been severely degraded from
uncontrolled growth. I have intentionally worn my Chattahoochee Riverkeeper® hat the entire trip as a symbolic gesture, hoping a better future awaits the Neuse River. Contact Neuse River Foundation (Raleigh Office)for details about Muddy Water Watch. 919-856-1180

We pass along the rocky ledges just upstream from our take out at Smithfield. The river transitions considerably along this stretch from rocky outcrops and clay soils of Piedmont NC to the sandy loamy soils of the low lying coastal plane. It is amazing how much this river changes in the 80 miles we have paddled. We soon arrive at Smithfield Commons, a beautiful area along the river connected to down town Smithfield, complete with a greenway, boat ramp, a full stage for outdoor venues on the river and the renovated “Neuse Little Theatre.” Joe Morgan, who is paddling with us today, informed me his mother helped work to reclaim the commons and re-develop this beautiful little stretch along the Neuse River for the benefit of the people. Johnston County is a better place because of her work. You basically need to go all the way to Union Point Park in New Bern to find a down town water-front park like this along the Neuse River. We’ll stop there as well near the end of this journey. Less than 200 miles to go. (Click here to read day 9) (Pledge/Donation)  (Video)