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INTERVIEW WITH DR. FRANCIS DIGIANO, FOUNDER OF CLEAN JORDAN LAKE.
Clean Jordan Lake is a nonprofit community-driven organization committed to removal of trash from the Jordan Lake and prevent its recurrence. It exists to inform, inspire, and coordinate cleanups and raise public awareness of the importance of watershed-wide, good stewardship.
Dr. Francis DiGiano founded Clean Jordan Lake in 2009. He is Professor Emeritus in the Dept. of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC-CH where he spent 26 years. Prior to this, he was in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for 12 years. He specialized in water quality and treatment. He holds a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, an MS in Sanitary Engineering from Tufts University and a PhD in Sanitary and Water Resources Engineering from the University of Michigan. He has received the A. P. Black Award from the American Water Works Association for sustained excellence in research and also the outstanding alumni achievement awards from Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts.
Blake Johnson is the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake Dam where he specializes in 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.
The Army Corps of Engineers has a strong partnership with Clean Jordan Lake and provides essential support including staff, a boat for trash and ferrying volunteers, and a dumpster staging area.
Dr. DiGiano, or as I know you prefer to be called, Fran - thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to tell our neighbors about Clean Jordan Lake. Before we get started, we know that your organization is registered as a nonprofit - however you run a really unique organization; can you tell us that makes Clean Jordan Lake different from many other nonprofits?
Blake, a good starting question, and the difference is we have no paid staff. Even modest pay for staff of our size would be about $100,000 a year - so we draw the line at no salaries. Our efforts at all levels are performed by volunteers, and thus our operating budget is only about $3,000. I hope sometime in the future that we may cultivate a relationship with the holder of a private trust fund that would provide a base level of salary.
No doubt your volunteers are important in this, can you share some logistics on how Clean Jordan Lake runs? How many volunteers are involved? Etc.
Blake, it is amazing to see what we have accomplished with no paid staff and using only volunteers for clean-ups. Although one might volunteer for an event, we might not see them for a while after that, and then they are back again. This works and over 8,000 volunteers have participated in our 12-year history.
They have participated in 550 events, removing 18,000 bags of trash and 4,800 tires. We offer two cleanups open to the general public each Fall and Spring that attract 150 volunteers.
We also have 2 types of Adoption Programs called Adopt-A-Shoreline and Adopt-A-Feeder Stream. They involve 27 groups of volunteers that remove trash several times each year from their assigned sites. Our volunteer leaders also respond to requests by 10 to 20 organizations annually that want to do supported cleanups such as secondary schools, university clubs, and civic groups.
I hesitate to ask this, but how has the pandemic effected your cleanups?
Regrettably, this has forced us to rethink our cleanups. Now there are “Small Group Cleanups” limited to 15 and we conform with the Governor’s policies regarding public outdoor gatherings. In four events from September to November this year, 60 volunteers removed about 120 bags of trash in these programs.
We have also had two organizations do cleanups in November and December- Carrboro-Chapel Hill YMCA Leaders Club and the NCSU Veterinary Volunteer Service Corps. In October we re-started our Adopt-a-Shoreline programs. In one effort, six volunteers removed 28 bags of trash and 25 propane canisters. Another group used paddle boards for trash in difficult to reach areas! We are just glad that our Adoption groups are willing to restart.
Most recently (March 13, 2021), we put an exclamation point on the importance of intercepting trash before it reaches the lake. We sponsored a cleanup on Third Fork Creek in Durham during their annual Durham Creek Week sponsored by Keep Durham Beautiful. Even with having to restrict volunteers to 15, the energy level was high enough to remove 100 bags of trash and 9 tires in under 3 hours of work!
Folks are always asking me how they can get involved. Can you share with the readers here how they can get involved with Clean Jordan Lake if they’re interested?
There are several ways to volunteer. If you navigate to the “HOW TO HELP” tab on CleanJordanLake.org, there’s a list of all of the ways you can get involved. We offer fall and spring cleanups for the general public and these are posted at https://www.meetup.com/helpcleanjordanlake/ .
These are also posted at our Facebook page – Clean Jordan lake, and on Instagram and Twitter, attracting 100 to 150 volunteers to cleanup, usually at the lake’s southern end where trash and tires accumulate in coves.
The HOW TO HELP tab on our website also tells how organizations can help remove trash, and our Adopt-A-Shoreline Program uses smaller groups that adopt a short section of shoreline at recreational accesses. There is also an Adopt-A-Feeder Stream Program where small groups select a stream near the lake to work at.
And how do these public trash cleanups work?
They can find Information at https://www.meetup.com/helpcleanjordanlake/ where one can learn how to get to a site, and the location of registration tables. You must submit online a liability waiver form that is used to check off volunteers upon arrival.
What do you provide for volunteers?
That depends on the type of cleanup. At a minimum, we provide bags, gloves and trash grabbers to our Shoreline Adoption groups that work on their own schedule and go to our storage units to get the supplies.
For our very large semi-annual events open to the general public, we additionally set up water stations and offer coffee and scones at the start of the event.
We assign leaders that we call Track Captains who are responsible for the safety and productivity of small, subsets of these volunteers.
We also want volunteers to pay attention to proper clothing. Closed toe shoes are required due to the many natural hazards like logs, ditches, ticks, and chiggers. We recommend you wear long pants, long sleeve shirt and hat.
What kind of trash do your volunteers find? I bet y’all find some pretty interesting stuff!
The simple answer to types of trash found is EVERYTHING
IMAGINABLE. From ballfields and playgrounds in the watershed, we recover bottles, soda cans, baby carriages, bicycles, three wheelers, carts, children’s toys, dolls, baseballs, softballs, soccer balls, basketballs, plastic baseball bats, and batters’ helmets. From truck traffic, we find construction debris, plastic pails of adhesives, paints, solvents, and hydraulic fluids.
From unknown sources we have recovered fire extinguishers far bigger than used on boats and pesticide sprayers used by lawn service companies. We have recovered several heavy plastic water meter covers imprinted with City of Greensboro, supply tags from a Duke Power storage facility in Burlington, CO2 delivery systems used for fountain drinks and orange traffic cones and barrels. There are propane tanks of various sizes coming from private dwellings, an assortment of automobile parts as large as car grills and bumpers and 55-gallon drums with unknown chemical contents.
All this is in addition to literally thousands of Bic cigarette lighters, cigarillo tips, aerosol hair spray cans, and aerosols of other common products discarded by the general populace as well as glass whisky bottles and a wide array of beverage containers. Ironically, we have recovered blue plastic Recycle crates! And the list goes on and on. You can see that some of those items would never fit in a storm drain. That is why we must be aware that the land-water nexus includes direct flushing into water from activities like illegal dumping and accidental loss of things like traffic cones and DOT orange barrels.
The list goes to the heart of the trash problem as a reflection of all of society's activities. It is akin to the research work of a social scientist I met years ago whose research interest was in understanding the change in our throw away behaviors by inspecting the layers of solid waste in the landfill deposited over decades.
Can you describe your most significant success?
This was not a single event. When we began, there was an enormous amount of trash on the Haw River arm of the lake.
Back then we would have 2 dumpsters overloaded with 600 trash bags and 600 tires for just one event.
Seeing where we are today gives me such a feeling of accomplishment.
Fran, I am sure that those that read this will be amazed by the kinds of trash in and around the lake. We see that y’all have certainly been up to a lot. So, when Clean Jordan Lake first started, how was it like out here?
When we started in 2008, our volunteers removed trash that was there since the lake was formed in 1981 as no trash removal had taken place before. There are about 10 major rises in lake level each year due to rain, each flushing trash into the lake. In 27 years, that is trash from 270 rainfall events. Back then we needed 100 to 200 volunteers just to clean ½ to 1 mi of shoreline.
So, because everyone asks and I’m sure they’re thinking this now, where does all of this trash come from?
Most of this trash originates from the lands within the two watersheds
of the lake, that of the Haw River reaching up to Greensboro and that of New Hope Creek reaching up to Hillsborough, and Durham. Every big rainfall flushes trash off this land into waterways that feed Haw River and New Hope Creek, the two major sources of Jordan Lake. And with each new rain, the same shoreline needs to be cleaned again.
These watersheds in turn comprise hundreds of sub-watersheds, and each tiny stream receives runoff after rain. The tiny streams join to make large ones and some of these combine to form the Haw River, the main source of water for Jordan Lake. The same thing occurs for New Hope Creek (Durham), Morgan Creek (Chapel Hill), and Beaver Creek and Northeast Creek (Apex and Morrisville). Think of all trash from shoppingmalls, parking lots, and roadways that will end up in these watersheds, and then into the lake.
Now I think we all understand that most trash comes from upstream and watersheds, but what about recreational use?
Blake, even you may be surprised to learn that recreational trash is only 20% the total but is more visible because it is on the shoreline or on the water.
We find bon-fires, barbeques, dirty diapers, Styrofoam, plasticware, beer bottles, cans, and even hypodermic needles.
Then there are plastic worm containers, propane canisters, fishing line, and lures. And still all of that is a small part of the trash problem.
Fran, how feasible would it be to mechanically stop this trash from making its way to Jordan Lake? Perhaps something like trash racks upstream to capture the trash before it flows down here?
Yes, of course! We did look at this and found putting mechanical traps on tributaries of the Haw River and New Hope Creek is not practical because the capital investment and maintenance would need to be assumed by local governments.
So, between the Haw and the New Hope, which do you see contributing more trash to Jordan Lake?
The bigger problem is at the southern end, because this watershed (Haw River) is 5 times larger than the northern one (New Hope Creek).
Some of the trash comes from municipal stormwater systems. But just as important, trash flushes directly off the land into streams. Oddly enough, when this trash reaches the lake it may disappear from view. It floats into the lake during heavy rains that cause the lake level to rise, and since the shoreline might be in the woods then, that is where the trash goes. The new shoreline could be anywhere from 200 ft to 400 ft back, and when the lake recedes, the trash stays in place and forms a trash line. A boater might not ever see this trash line.
And what about the role of local governments and agencies?
We offer Environmental Awareness Pontoon Boat Tours for many elected officials and nonprofits in the region and we think this will help over time. We talked with public relations firms about a campaign of public service announcement on TV outlets and in movie theaters. But the price exceeded what we could raise funds for. And I am sad to say there are no other nonprofits that do what we do
As to the role of state agencies, NC Division of Parks and Recreation manages about 30 miles of shoreline within Jordan Lake State Park but that leaves another 150 miles. Jordan Lake State Park cleanup staff concentrate mainly on lightly littered areas near campgrounds. I cannot imagine any government agency routinely combing the most seriously impacted shoreline outside of State Park land, putting trash in bags and hauling it away.
Good point Fran. What about NC Wildlife Resources Commission?
Readers should know that while it manages most of the 28,000 acres that surrounds the lake, its main concern is fish and wildlife.
Its lands are commonly referred to as “Game Lands” because hunters and trappers are allowed according to seasons for game as published by the Commission.It does also provide for public multi-use areas like for dog walking, bird watching and just enjoying a wooded natural setting.
Not to take shots at the State in any way, but we’re often asked why the State doesn’t undertake this task. I know we know why, but can you explain to everyone reading why you think the State does not do more?
About 80% of trash is from stormwater coming into the watershed, so why should the state pay for removal of this trash when it originates from cities and towns upstream? Now maybe local governments could do more by curbing illegal dumping and raising the profile of litter prevention. And NC-DOT might do more about removing trash on highways. Maybe these things would decrease the amount of trash going into stormwater drains. DOT decided to abandon prisoner work programs after a prisoner was killed by a car on busy interstate highway. It now relies on contractors. You may see signs on Interstate acknowledging local businesses that have sponsored litter removal meaning that they contribute money to DOT to hire those contractors.
Of course, you know NC Division of Parks and Recreation only has authority for about 30% of the land around the lake, NC WRC manages 60%, and your Corps of Engineers manages the remaining 10%.
Yes, of course. I’m always pleased to hear how many people use Jordan Lake and its surrounding lands every year.
Jordan Lake State Park keeps track of its visitors, but many other visit areas not managed by the State Park. The Park says they have 1.6 million visits a year. and I estimate 2 million visits to all the shoreline in total. Recreational activities include camping, fishing, boating, picnicking, bird watching and hiking.
But while recreational use is certainly important to many of us, we need to keep in mind that flood damage reduction and control was always the main impetus for constructing Jordan Lake.
Fran, and may I add, we with the Corps of Engineers track visitors to our park at the dam as well and coordinate with our local state partners to get an idea of total usage of the lake. As of 2020, we estimate about 2 million guests each year. And that sure is a good amount of use. With this in mind, folks always ask us about the drinking water here, if it’s safe. I know you have a really good writeup about drinking water at Jordan Lake on the Clean Jordan Lake webpage, but can you sum a bit of what you know about the drinking water here for the readers?
Blake, I knew this would come up sooner or later and I am glad to comment. We need to understand that like many reservoirs in North Carolina, streams that feed it receive discharges of treated wastewater. South Durham discharges into New Hope Creek and Carrboro-Chapel Hill into Morgan Creek. Both of these wastewater treatment plants do an excellent job of removing pollutants. The State enforces EPA regulations on effluent water quality and then of course, there is dilution within the lake. Nevertheless, there are contemporary concerns about unregulated pollutants that could be of health concern and these are under increased scrutiny. I’m guessing that very few users of the lake would know about wastewater is going into it. Jordan Lake is surrounded by public land, and there is not one house to see while on the lake. While this is impressive as an oasis of natural land in a rapidly urbanizing area, the presence of trash may leave visitors with questions about drinking water.
So, does trash contribute to chemical pollution of the lake we ask? We just do not know how much might be on the lake bottom. We have found things like industrial chemicals, fire extinguishers and lawn care sprayers on the shoreline. When the lake level rises after rain, these become submerged and could release chemicals. Obviously, we do not want chemicals in water no matter how small their concentration. And to make matters worse, chemicals ingested by organisms in the lake make their way up the food chain to large fish which may become food for humans.
You mentioned fish – but what are impacts that can be felt by other forms of wildlife?
We also have observed animals ingesting tiny pieces of
Styrofoam. And broken glass at recreational access points can harm wildlife as well.
Photo by nature photographer Ellen Tinsley show birds
entangled in fishing line.
Okay, so, it’s likely not safe to drink directly from the lake (or any surface water for that matter!), but what about swimming here? There’s a very informative section on the Clean Jordan Website that goes over the question of whether the lake is clean enough to swim. Can you sum this up for our readers?
We discuss the concern over bacterial contamination at our website. We note that advanced warning is not always possible because results of tests are never available immediately. Thus, there is hesitancy for government agencies to publish because the results are not in real time. A rainfall can raise the bacterial count but a few days later, when the test result is available, it will have returned to low levels. Equally possible, however, is a low bacterial count recorded several day ago gets published AFTER a heavy rainfall that has since raised the count to be dangerous for swimming!
North Carolina does not require testing of inland swimming areas as it does in coastal waters. The state park does testing at their swimming beaches, but do not publish the results. Wake County has its own testing program for lakes in their county, mainly at Falls Lake, and results are published on their website.
We also outline at our website the general concerns about toxins although there are no specific data for the lake that we can easily make available. The main concern is the so-called algal toxins in very low concentrations that result from algae growth usually in the late summer months. These can cause skin irritation but the simple advice we give is to shower immediately after swimming. NC Dept. of Environmental Quality does measure algae counts but the toxin data are not plentiful and not available to us to post. So far, the toxin values have been below health advisory levels.
In my professional opinion as an environmental engineer, I do not see a threat to swimmers from chemicals. Yes, we hear in the news about trace chemicals being found in the Haw River and at Jordan Lake, the most notable of which are in the PFAS grouping. These are called forever chemicals because they do not break down in nature. Theses synthetic chemicals are virtually in every water body, but it is a question of how much. The threat is certainly not from body contact while swimming and even swallowing a little water. Federal government regulations are set mainly to protect health based on ingestion of water over a lifetime if the chemical be of concern. The U.S. EPA sets guidelines for water quality and regulates chemical although many argue that the process of adding new chemical to the list is far too slow and cumbersome.
The State of North Carolina conducts tests to measure algal counts and also measure chemical contaminants but budget constraints limit the frequency and extent of testing. Watchdog groups such as the Haw River Assembly are pushing hard to get the “forever chemicals” entering the Haw River regulated. These are also present in Jordan Lake, but the levels are very low because of dilution in hundreds of billions of gallons of water. More needs to be done to enable the Dept. of Environmental Quality to conduct many more tests but again, it comes down to the issue of adequate budget and a state legislature that is willing to put a higher priority on good water quality in our lakes.
Understanding that government agencies are already stretched thin, what kind of help might they give?
Blake, as you know we partner with you all with the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers which gives us staff assistance, use of your pontoon boat for trash and volunteers, and a holding location for a Chatham County dumpster. The main goal in working with NC WRC and State Park is to make sure they know what we are doing and when. Communication is essential to maintaining a good working relationship with them. The State Park has a ranger as a Volunteer Coordinator that we must notify about locations of our cleanups and we let our cleanup leaders know to submit volunteer’s required forms to the Coordinator.
Now I understand that at times Clean Jordan Lake receives corporate assistance. Now, this may not be in the way that first comes to mind to many. Can you expand on how businesses can assist the mission of Clean Jordan Lake?
Yes, and our HOW TO HELP web page at CleanJordanLake.org has information about how any individual or corporation can contribute. We are also working on a corporate sponsorship program, but to be clear, we do not have corporate sponsors in the sense of providing regular donations. Some provide supplies and have programs in which an amount is given per volunteer or per hour.
In the future, I would hope to get corporations to sponsor our Adopt-A-Shoreline Program much like DOT seeks funds to pay for their litter pickup contractors. In this way, we may entice more organizations to join our Adoption Program by passing the corporation sponsorship money back to them, for example a Boy Scout Troop for their use in doing other projects.
How can we individuals, businesses, service groups, churches, etc. other than by volunteering?
We always accept monetary donations and see the HOW TO HELP web page or the Clean Jordan Lake Facebook page to learn more. We always appreciate help with expenses like liability insurance, and operating expenses (rentals, licenses, supplies).
And we want a pontoon boat for ferrying and trash and would like a public service announcement campaign about trash prevention, and a social media video as well. These require significant donations, so those that want to help, should go to the HOW TO HELP page or to the Clean Jordan Lake Facebook page and use the DONATE button via PayPal
Fran, what educational resources might there be for readers to learn more?
Blake, our website contains a vast array of educational materials. There is a GIS Trash Mapping and watershed map there. Our cleanup results are there in real time with meters for the number of cleanups, volunteers, bags, and tires. Lots of other good information here as well.
Fran, thank you again for taking this time. In closing, is there anything else you want to say?
Blake, Van Murray took over from me as President in 2017. He is Chief Executive Officer of Appsmart,Csp, Inc., a company that provides a simple resource for cloud apps and technology services for businesses and nonprofits alike.
Van sees technology engaging many more volunteers. He completely revamped our website. We now have online registration for cleanups and reporting of results that make it easy for small groups and even individuals to do cleanups. We may move away from offering large cleanups. We've eliminated a paper trail. We see an uptick in folks wanting to do cleanups near where they live. The goal is to intercept trash near its source instead of staining our beautiful shoreline.
And Blake, we really need to add to our Board of Directors. Those on our Board not only provide advice on our future direction but are also responsible for programs to carry out our mission. We need more energetic leaders willing to devote 10 hours per month to help us attain our goals.
And I want to stress that all we do would be impossible without the partnership with the Corps of Engineers and with Chatham County Solid Waste & Recycling. The Corps provides support for cleanups including staff, a boat for hauling trash, ferrying volunteers, and a staging area for a dumpster that Chatham County government removes and replaces with an empty one.
Thank you, Army Corps of Engineers, and thank you Chatham County!
It has been a pleasure to be able to tell everyone our story, please help us in any way you can. This problem will not go away anytime soon, and we need to at least keep it from getting any worse in the face of increasing residential and commercial development near these watersheds and the rivers that feed Jordan Lake.
CLEAN JORDAN LAKE
Please visit Fran DiGiano and Clean Jordan Lake at: https://www.cleanjordanlake.org/
Learn how you can help and donate at: https://www.cleanjordanlake.org/how-to-help-1
See the Clean-up events schedule at: https://www.meetup.com/helpcleanjordanlake/
Follow them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Clean-Jordan-Lake-123702687650745/
Swimming in the Lake: https://www.cleanjordanlake.org/swimming-at-jordan-lake
Join Clean Jordan Lake and get their newsletter: https://www.cleanjordanlake.org/
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