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River watch

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By Marion Blackburn

WASHINGTON, N.C. — Waters of the Tar River will get regular check-ups through a new project of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation.

Each month, volunteers will take samples to analyze for bacteria, metals and other signs of contamination.

The project will allow the foundation, working with state and local regulators, to uncover and correct pollution along the river’s 180 miles, says Heather Jacobs, riverkeeper for the Tar River.

“The results will be highly useful to us and to researchers,” she says.

Since 2003, Jacobs has watched over the river through the foundation’s riverkeeper program.

Her post is supported largely by grants and foundation fundraisers, including membership dues and an annual Oyster Roast.

Only about a third of the freshwater of the Tar River is routinely monitored because the state simply cannot afford it, Jacobs says.

“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to be here,” she says. “The laws we have in North Carolina are pretty darn good. But the Department [of Environment and Natural Resources] is underfunded and understaffed, so they have to prioritize, to pick things that will affect our resources the most. Some things slip by because the manpower is not there.”

These tests will help, she says.

HEATHER JACOBS

Job: Riverkeeper for the Tar River, Pamlico-Tar River Foundation

Age: 29

Education: Master’s, environmental management and water resources, Duke University, 2000. Bachelor’s, biology, Lycoming College, Pa.

Service: Two years, Peace Corps, El Salvador

Personal motto: Strength, patience, peace

Inspirations: Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring.” Research scientist Melvin Zimmerman, undergraduate adviser

“This project is an attempt to fill in those data gaps,” she says.

This summer, Jacobs will train volunteers to monitor 10 sites in the Greenville area.

And in the next two years, the program will move west into Edgecombe and Nash counties, where additional teams will draw monthly samples.

The program is funded by a $57,000 grant through the state Attorney General’s Office from Smithfield Foods.

The grant is one of several resulting from a 2000 agreement between the Attorney General’s Office and Smithfield Foods to address mounting concerns about hog waste from lagoons and spray fields.

The pork producer agreed to pay $2 million a year to groups concerned with improving water quality.

The agreement also set aside $15 million for water research at N.C. State University after the Attorney General’s Office concluded that the public interest would be served by improving swine waste-management technologies.

The world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods has about 200 hog lagoons in North Carolina.

Eventually, Jacobs says, regular testing of the Tar River will help restore the streams, creeks and runs it absorbs on its way to the Pamlico Sound estuary and Atlantic Ocean.

The lifeblood of Eastern North Carolina, the Tar River covers 5,000 square miles through 16 counties, with another 2,500 miles of streams feeding it.

Within the river basin are the Pocosin Lakes, Swan Quarter and Lake Mattamuskeet national wildlife refuges.

Begun in 1981, the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation has benefited from funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, among others, and has three full-time and one part-time employee.

Mary Alsentzer, a former state board member for the League of Women Voters, serves as its executive director.

“We are the only watchdog organization for our watershed,” she says.

The foundation works locally but also joins other environmental groups to press for action.

“That kind of collaboration can help effect positive changes in state regulation,” she says.

Jacobs recently completed the first “Paddle for Clean Water,” spending two weeks on the river from Oxford to Washington.

A 2000 graduate of Duke University’s master’s in environmental management and water resources, she also served two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador.

Paddling the river showed her its biological diversity, she says, adding she is grateful for the support of sponsors and well-wishers, including more than 40 people who paddled the final miles with her.

“The goal was to illustrate problems affecting the river, and also to raise awareness of what towns and cities are doing to improve the water in the river,” she says. “Helping people protect their own back yards is the best thing I can do.”

What helps the river helps the region, Jacobs says, and human activity that sickens the river will have bad long-term effects.

“Everything we do on land and in the air affects our water,” she says. “While we have treatment for drinking water, contamination of our creeks and streams comes from what we do. Some problems will fall through the cracks and that’s hard to regulate.”

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