INTERVIEW WITH KYLEENE ROOKS
WATERSHED EDUCATION & OUTREACH COORDINATOR FOR THE ‎HAW RIVER ASSEMBLY

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The Haw River Assembly is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to restoring and protecting the Haw River and Jordan Lake, and to building a watershed community that shares this vision. The Haw River Assembly has since grown to over 1000 members, volunteers and supporters from the region and is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. 

Kyleene Rooks joined Haw River Assembly in 2019 and as its Watershed Education & Outreach Coordinator, she is responsible for many of its events including the Haw River Learning Celebration in the Fall and the annual Clean-Up-A-Thon and Haw River Festival in the spring. As a Certified NC Environmental Educator, she also assists with environmental education programming throughout the year.

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Blake Johnson is the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake Dam where he specializes in community outreach and engagement. He began working with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Falls Lake in 2015 and graduated from NCSU with a major in Environmental Technology & Management and minors in Environmental Chemistry & Toxicology and Soil Science. He is now the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake.

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Kyleene, it is good to see you again and thank you for taking the time to tell us about the important role of the Haw River Assembly in our region.   For those of us who are not at all familiar with the Haw, where exactly does it flow?

Blake, thank you for giving us this opportunity to tell you our story.  The Haw River flows 110 miles from the eastern edge of Forsyth County down to Chatham County where it joins the Deep River to become the Cape Fear River.  Along the way it flows through Guilford, Rockingham, Alamance, Orange, and Chatham counties, and is fed by tributaries in Caswell, Durham and western Wake county and its entire watershed is about 1700 square miles.

Interesting.  I think our readers would enjoy learning a little about its history as well.

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A few hundred years ago, a pristine Haw River flowed through Piedmont forests. Then white settlers arrived in the 1700’s and took the land along the Haw from the native Sissipahaw.  They established settlements and farms along the waterways, allowing sediment to flow into streams and then into the Haw.  As the south became increasingly industrialized in the late 1800’s, textile mills used large dams on the Haw for hydro-power and used the river to dispose of their waste as well. The impact of this pollution, along with minimum (or no) sewage treatment from towns, fouled the river, making it unsafe for drinking, swimming, and fishing.
 

Later, the 1972 Clean Water Act created new rules to stop pollution including better wastewater and stormwater treatment and regulations requiring industries to pre-treat their waste before dumping it into the river.  While this certainly helped, the health of the Haw was still in peril. 

And surely, a river’s health isn’t only important to the river as their waters meet other wetlands. A very important wetland to me is where I work – Jordan Lake. Our readers have heard a lot about Jordan Lake from me, but it's important other perspectives are shared as well. What can you tell us about Jordan Lake?

So, In 1982, the B. Everett Jordan Reservoir was completed, creating Jordan Lake, a 14,000-acre impoundment of waters of the Haw River below its confluence with New Hope Creek. Built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, it flooded New Hope bottomlands in Chatham and Durham counties where many farms had been located.

By 2002 Jordan Lake was on the EPA Impaired Waters list due to excessive algae caused by nutrients flowing into it from urban waste and stormwater.  The lake continues to be impaired today and despite this, it is a popular recreation area, and a drinking water source for over 300,000 people.

Today the Haw watershed is home to over 900,000 people, large agricultural and industrial operations, and second growth forests.

900,000 and growing might I add! Where do we go from here?

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Well, as the population escalates, so does the pace of development, further contributing to the ongoing sediment and nutrient issues the Haw has today, and with climate change creating more regular flash flooding, issues have only been more severe in recent years.

But with better enforcement of erosion and pollution controls (and better laws), and a concerted effort to protect stream buffers in the Piedmont, there is hope for the Haw River and its aquatic life, and our drinking water. New efforts are underway to stop industrial contamination.  And implementation of more sustainable planning and growth policies, will enable us to face new threats that will come with climate change in the Haw River watershed, while supporting the health of the waters.

Is there anything that those outside of the Haw River Assembly can do to help maintain the health of the Haw River Watershed?

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Actually, there are several ways one can help us.

One thing is Muddy Water Watch.  We have this program because increasing development has caused significant levels of sediment pollution in large part from construction stormwater runoff that carries not only sediment, but also debris, chemicals, and bacteria which are harmful to humans and aquatic habitat. Volunteers in this program can learn how to identify and report sediment and erosion control violations to the Haw Riverkeeper and county officials. They also monitor, record, and report on potential sediment and erosion control violations at constructions site through a user-friendly smartphone application.

How about your River Watch?  I’ve heard a lot about the River Watch program!

Yes Blake, River Watch is another excellent way for someone to volunteer.  Volunteers conduct four seasonal “snapshot” surveys each year and document water quality across the tributaries and riverbanks of the Haw. We train you to monitor water quality through biological, chemical, and visual parameters. This program is great for people who are already going to be near local waters for recreational activities and can see when conditions are not normal in their stream.

These sound like beneficial programs, and easy to volunteer for and receive training. Kyleene, you mentioned your Riverkeeper several times.  Some of our readers will want to know more, so what can you tell us?

Another excellent question.  Emily Sutton is our Riverkeeper and manages our citizen science projects that are watchdogs for sediment pollution and which monitor the tributaries and main stem of the Haw River.  As Riverkeeper, she leads the fight against pollution in the Haw on many fronts, including industrial contaminants, Jordan Lake nutrients, and sediment pollution. There is a lot more to tell you, but for now, anyone interested in these citizen monitoring programs can contact her through email at emily@hawriver.org

Even though you all have a full time Riverkeeper, with such an effort as this, volunteers will of course still be necessary. Can you expand a bit on how the volunteers can also do their part in keeping an eye out on the Haw, similar to the Riverkeeper?

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Unfortunately, our Haw Riverkeeper can’t be everywhere at once. That’s why we rely on volunteers to detect and report problems we don’t see. And a trained volunteer might be going somewhere and, in the process, notice something is off with the river or creek nearby?  It might be a chemical smell, algae bloom, sediment issues, or even a fish kill.

So, a trained volunteer sees something troubling, what do they do about it?

Detection is not any good if we cannot report it, and in a timely manner as well.  That is why we developed a special form on our website that asks you for things like nature and location, and any pictures and other information you might have.  It only takes a few minutes to complete, and we will investigate and get back to you as soon as we know more.

What if one wants to help, but does not have the time for formal training?  What else can they do?

Fortunately, we have what we call Clean Ups for those who want to help but have limited time to do so.

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How do these Clean Up events work?

Well, we have Clean Ups year-round, as preventing plastic and othertrash pollution is important to the health of our water.  We often sponsor these in conjunction with the group Clean Jordan Lake to provide supplies and support to volunteer led clean ups. This program is much easier to register for and participate in.  And on the third Saturday of each March the Haw River Assembly facilitates a watershed wide clean up event,the Haw River Clean Up A Thon! where we provide volunteer-led teams from Greensboro to Jordan Lake with gloves and bags to pick up and paddle out trash from their river. 

If anyone’s interested in getting involved but has some questions, can they reach out to you?

Sure thing! I’m our events and outreach coordinator - I actually organize this event and I would be glad to answer questions, help with supplies, and provide event locations and trash pick-up points.  Contact me thru email at krooks@hawriver.org

Kyleene, with all of this talk on preserving the Haw River, which feeds into Jordan Lake, I’m imagining some of our readers are likely wondering if there are any concerns about drinking the water from Jordan Lake. What’s your take?

Well, we probably know that Jordan Lake is a reservoir of the Haw River and also creeks from western Wake County, meaning that everything that happens upstream directly affects recreation and drinking water. Our fight isn’t just with sediment and nutrient pollution from runoff, we also work to fight issues of industrial contaminants as well. There are a variety of chemicals that get into our water from industrial facility direct discharges and some of these are associated with serious health impacts. Many of these are known as forever chemicals—they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade but stay in water, soil, and our bodies. 

Many facilities in the Haw River basin send their industrial waste to a municipal wastewater treatment plant where pretreatment takes place, but only removes heavy metals and very few regulated toxins.  Many of these compounds are not 100% removed in traditional wastewater or drinking water treatment and enter surface waters through wastewater treatment plants.  Additionally, the sludge that is applied near streams is often sourced from these same wastewater treatment plants and can later be carried into streams in rain or even during application and might contaminate shallow wells.

What can Citizens who share your public health and safety concerns do?

 

Good question again, Blake.  The most critical way people can be involved is by creating awareness:  share articles and information on social media to help educate your friends; write Letters to the Editor to make sure this issue is getting the attention it needs in order to be addressed; or contact your elected officials and let them know you expect them to address these types of contamination issues in NC, including setting limits on discharges of these classes of compounds.

Blake, with that all being said, we know that Jordan Lake is still a great place for recreation. That’s why we help monitor it through our Swim Guide program! 

And what’s the Swim Guide Program?

The program is relatively new at the Haw River Assembly, but since 2019 we’ve been able to employ interns over the summer to travel to various locations throughout the watershed to take samples and monitor swimming areas for E. coli contamination, which is an indicator for whether there are unsafe levels of pathogens in the water. We share that information through the Swim Guide App and on our social media weekly so families can know how safe it is to swim and paddle in the waters near them.

I’m actually an outreach guy myself so I always appreciate some information on outreach and education.  What can you tell us?

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We put great value on keeping citizens of the watershed informed.  Our largest outreach event of the year is the Haw River Learning Celebration, a field trip for fourth graders each fall. Since 1990, over 48,000 students have participated.  Schools can choose one of three locations in Chatham, Alamance, and Rockingham counties, and spend a day doing activities along the river, enjoying a picnic lunch, concert, and a special puppet show.  Volunteers help with set up, teaching, leading hikes, and helping students explore the wonders of their local river through game and song.  Meals are even donated by local businesses and there are talent shows on Thursday’s where family and friends join in on the fun. 

Of course, with the pandemic going on, we’ve taken our Learning Celebration Virtual and share it with all fourth-grade students throughout the watershed!  This includes videos that let you experience online, the activities fourth graders and our volunteers participate in during the field trip. All episodes align with fourth grade standard curriculum, are 12 to 18 minutes each in length and can be viewed together or separately.

Kyleene, what you are doing with fourth grade students is amazing and their experiences now should make them more aware of good environmental habits.  Are there any other programs you want to share with us?

Our Plastics Campaign is to increase awareness of the repercussions of single-use plastics and other plastic waste in our rivers and creeks.  Our Riverkeeper leads interns in monitoring locations near discharge sites and urban runoff, and they count micro-plastic samples using a microscope. This data is to help raise awareness of how plastics directly affect the people who live along the Haw River and its tributaries.  We also work with local businesses to reduce single-use plastics in their business model. In exchange, we promote them to our membership base as “River Friendly” establishments. 

 

We have a Climate Action Campaign to address the impacts here that we have already experienced in the Piedmont, and which supports solutions to reduce greenhouse gases.  You might find it interesting to know that this campaign was created in wake of the current pandemic. As we envision a post-pandemic recovery, the Haw River Assembly has cranked up its efforts to respond to the climate crisis. Our work so far has included researching local watershed impacts and during the most recent election we created conversations with several candidates running for local and state offices and shared their stance on the climate crisis and policy and regulatory changes with our membership base.

Kyleene, I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us and share plenty of options for volunteering.  How can our readers keep up with the Haw River Assembly and see your path forward?

The best ways to stay informed with what’s happening in the Haw River/Jordan Lake watershed would be to browse through our website on issues that interest you the most and to subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter so we can notify you on trail openings, upcoming in-person or virtual events, changes in river issues and ways to get involved in protecting your waterways.

There are ways you can help if you cannot volunteer. We sell t-shirts online and will have an online store in 2021.  We accept donations through PayPal and with credit cards.  We also accept checks through our P.O Box (Haw River Assembly, P.O. Box 187, Bynum NC 27228).

WEBSITE:   http://hawriver.org/

ADDRESS:  Haw River Assembly, P.O. Box 187, Bynum NC 27228

DONATE ON-LINE:   http://hawriver.org/join-hra/

FACEBOOK & INSTAGRAM:    @hawriverassembly

TWITTER: @HawRiverkeeper

VIMEO:   https://vimeo.com/hawriverassembly 

SIGN UP FOR NEWSLETTER:  http://hawriver.org/

QUESTIONS:    Contact Kyleene Rooks thru email at krooks@hawriver.org