As a small boy growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, California during the 1950s, I was among the first generation to be entranced by television. I vicariously enjoyed the adventures of the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. With my playmates I did my best to imitate their behaviors. Often I would see them drink directly from the streams that ran through the great Western lands they roamed doing their good deeds. Streams didn’t run through my neighborhood, but runoff from lawns and car washing filled gutters below the concrete curbs parallel to the asphalt. It looked enough like a stream to me, so I drank from it.

Yeccch! Once I almost sucked up a worm. That was the end of that.

As age and experience increased my ability to range far from my suburban home, I traveled to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. High in the Western Sierras one could indeed drink without fear from the pristine headwaters of many rivers. Around Lake Tahoe I would make it a point to hike to where ice melted into clear pools of crystal pure, life-giving water.

Once upon a time I’ve been told, the rivers of the Chatham ran clear because of nature’s own filtration system, the mussel. Good god, he’s on about the mussels again, you might say. Yes, I am. The Rocky River and her cousins the Haw and Deep are now the color of strong black tea from so many years of abuse that the collective memory of their former cleanliness has died. The mussels in Chatham’s rivers were once so numerous that they had nicknames like the Carolina Heelsplitter because you couldn’t venture into the river without stepping on them.

In a recent conversation with local biologist, John Alderman, I learned that one of the mussels once so numerous in the Rocky River, the Atlantic Pig Toe, listed as endangered, can no longer be found below Siler City’s waste water discharge into Love’s Creek (one of the Rocky’s main tributaries) to Woody’s Dam. The variety and number of many species decreases below this point. Once the home range of the Cape Fear Shiner Minnow, the little fish has now been extirpated. Though further study needs to be conducted, Alderman has a “sneaking suspicion” that Siler City sewer discharges are responsible for killing animals essential to the health of the river. Not much further down the river, Sanford draws its drinking water from the Deep River below its confluence with the Rocky.


According to Alderman many of North Carolina’s pigs and chickens drink virgin well water while humans drink the treated effluent of our neighbors upstream. That shows you what our state values.

I propose that Siler City begin drawing on Chatham County’s water supply from Jordan Lake. Demolish the dam in Siler City and restore the Rocky , a nationally significant river. The Rocky River is a “flash” river, meaning that it is cleansed when swollen with rainfall. After the rain the river drops back to low levels. Damming such a delicately balanced river dependent on strict natural processes is a death sentence!

Siler City, already in financial difficulty, is about $16 million in debt because of money borrowed to expand its reservoir. This dam makes no fiscal or environmental sense, yet the inertia of such an ill-fated project keeps the present idiotic plan in place. That money would be better spent cleaning up its killer sewer discharges

There has been some talk among Chatham County Commissioners about providing Siler City with Lake Jordan water, but it hasn’t gone much further than that. The pipes to convey the water are already in the ground, so what’s the hold up?

Can you imagine the Rocky River clear enough to see the bottom filled with tiny, powerful mussels filtering the river for free? Can you imagine bathing in and drinking from our rivers once again without fear? Can you imagine how your heart would swell with pride when you hold the hands of your grandchildren and tell them how this generation made and kept a commitment to their future? Can you imagine the economic value that such a river would have?

If Siler City had such a Rocky River running through it, the benefits would be innumerable. For example, the town would immediately save money by not having to process drinking water. The poor quality water from the Rocky, resulting in toxic trihalomethanes, would be replaced by healthier quality water from Jordan Lake.

Again, Chatham County is positioned to set a better standard for its citizens. Surely we deserve water as good as pigs and chickens get. It’s past time that citizens, private and public defended our life support systems.

“Water has a voice. It carries a message that tells those downstream who you are and how you care for the land.” — Bernie McGurl

What tale will the Rocky River tell about you Chatham?