Too Many Straws in the Drink

Drinking games are a lot of fun; a few friends sharing a drink, each with their own straw. The race to the bottom of the glass may be momentarily amusing, but massive slurps don’t satisfy a long-term thirst. That’s the plight of the Rocky River, Chatham Counties dying jewel. Abuse and overuse will lead to the collapse of this ecosystem in the not too distant future if an innovative solution doesn’t soon replace intransigent criminal neglect.

Before I continue, let me first say that Siler City cannot serve as a convenient whipping boy for the river’s precarious state. It is a town as beleaguered as the river that serves it. Burdened by debt, hit hard by the Recession, Siler City is barely treading water as it is circled by its sharp-toothed troubles. The town and the Rocky River are inextricably intertwined. One will not survive without the health of the other.

Furthermore, the town has jumped through considerable hoops to win approval for its ill conceived new dam. Siler City now boasts some of the widest stream buffers to protect the Rocky and its tributaries. They have gone to no small effort to mitigate wetlands lost to the new reservoir. They have instituted stronger sediment and storm water regulations as well. Town Manager Joel Brower has led the town throughout the process with a mastery of detail that speaks to his intelligence and leadership.

The new Charles Turner Reservoir on the Rocky River above Hwy. 64 will soon be filled to provide an additional 2 million gallons per day (mg/d) for Siler City by 2025; not so very far off. A total of 6 mg/d of water will be taken from the river.

As rivers go, the Rocky is a diminutive rill, 88% of which is in Chatham County. It is Chatham’s river. As a “flash” river, it needs periodic high flows to wash it out to maintain its delicate ecosystem. After heavy rains, water levels drop; so the river is a series of pools connected by shallow riffles. It can barely provide what Siler City demands now let alone another 2 million gallons a day. The web of life in the Rocky River is slowly disintegrating. Critical indicator species are disappearing.

The Cape Fear Shiner, just an insignificant minnow to many, once thrived throughout the Upper Cape Fear River Basin (UCFRB) of which the Rocky is a tributary. Biologist John Alderman, who has spent his life hip deep in Piedmont rivers, says the Shiner should still be present in much of the UCFRB. The one-two punch of pollution and not enough water to reproduce properly has left the minnow at the edge of extinction. Part of the state’s rationale for approving the project was because the Shiner was not found around the dam site. That’s because most of the river will no longer support a small, unobtrusive species like the Shiner. Mussels, the guardians of clean waters, were once found in abundance. A single Carolina Creekshell Mussel was found nearby when the NC Wildlife Commission surveyed the river in 2004. Imagine, being the sole survivor of your kind in a neighborhood once filled with your relatives and friends.

According to the agencies who approved the project, the reservoir will actually increase downstream flows; but not enough to make the Rocky a thriving river again. And among all the reports generated by the regulatory approval process not one word was written about how climate change will affect the river.

The criminal mismanagement of the Rocky River by state and federal authorities is bleeding and starving the river to a terminal stage of disease.

A solution is available. Chatham County must begin providing Siler City with water from Jordan Lake to wean them out of the Rocky. Siler City must embark on a comprehensive water reuse program. This could reduce the town’s water use by enough to allow them to destroy the dams on the Rocky and deliver it from certain death.