Below are the most pressing problems your rivers and water supply face. Click on each section to learn more about the issues.

Aquatic Weeds

The New River suffers from infestations of Alligator Weed and Parrot Feather. As urbanization has increased along the shores of the New River, so has the appearance of invasive aquatics. Often stretching from shore to shore, large mats of these very invasive weeds significantly reduce the amount of oxygen and light penetration necessary to support aquatic life in upstream spawning and nursery areas. The runoff of fertilizers from urban areas as well as farms exacerbates the problem by providing a rich food source for aquatic weeds and algae while reducing the overall water quality. Efforts to eliminate these weeds will continue to fail until we establish effective riparian barriers and effective education for homeowners as well as farms and businesses.

Factory Farms

The New River springs to life on a large factory farm (also known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO) and travels through land that supports an additional 43 swine and 60 poultry CAFOs. Several of them are located directly along the banks of the New River, polluting the clean water along the way. Water that runs through the fields is used to apply animal waste from these farms, then emptied into the public waters of this extremely nutrient sensitive river.

Several CAFOs can be found within the White Oak River sub-basin with many poultry and swine operations. The state of North Carolina has done virtually nothing to regulate the disposal of poultry waste and has been anything but aggressive in requiring compliance with swine waste disposal regulations.

State agencies have not been inclined to increase restrictions on these operations despite evidence showing severe negative environmental impacts. Through loopholes in the statewide ‘moratorium’, hog production has increased by 56,000+ head last year to over 180,000 anually. Onslow County also produces over 2,000,000 turkeys and earns top 5 ranking in North Carolina. Finally, we raise 900,000 chickens per year to further ‘enrich’ our environment. Limited environmental regulations that would help protect the rivers exist. All producers provide self generated documentation of activities to state agencies. Only swine operations experience mandated on-site inspections. The only restriction to poultry waste application is that it not be entered directly into public waters! Enforcement efforts are hindered by understaffing, under funding, and splintered jurisdictional authority. The chair of the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission aptly observed that the industry’s case for not requiring NPDES permits was, at its core, a ‘legal fiction.’ Unfortunately, the pollution is real and the only fiction resides in the legality issue.

We work with several other water advocacy groups to right some of these wrongs. Through the ‘Pure Farms Pure Waters’ campaign, we work with North Carolina Waterkeeper Alliance members to join together and help apply pressure to state agencies, prevent rollbacks on important bills and support new regulations of these CAFOs. A goal is to also promote sustainable farming, which will not only decrease the level of nutrient pollution to our rivers, but also help boost the local economy.

Recent study by NC DENR & USGS confirms that industrial swine and poultry operations are polluting our waterways.
[back to the top]


Apex Wind Energy, a company based in Charlottesville, Virginia, has applied for a lease for 213 square miles of ocean about 25 miles off our coast in order to study the potential for electricity generation from offshore wind turbines. The company plans a five-year study of the site before beginning any construction.

There are offshore wind projects in other countries but this is the first application for wind-energy off the North Carolina coast. Duke Energy had planned to build a pilot project of three turbines in the Pamlico Sound, but canceled those plans yesterday.

It is very promising to know that North Carolina is moving toward a cleaner, safer energy future. Coal-fired power plants have enormous impacts on our rivers and streams.

In North Carolina, coal-fired power plants account for 70% of man‐made airborne emissions of mercury. Both the New and White Oak Rivers are under a fish consumption advisory for mercury. You can learn more about mercury, where it comes from, how it gets into our fish and the health effects it causes HERE.

We still have a lot to learn about the potential impacts of offshore wind generation but it is hard to see how it could be worse for the health of our rivers and our children than what we’re doing now.
[back to the top]

Injection of Wastewater

Onslow Water and Sewer Authority is pushing a bill in the N.C. General Assembly that would allow treated sewage to be pumped into the ground, overturning a longstanding law protecting vital drinking-water sources and potentially posing a significant health risk to the thousands of Onslow County residents who depend on clean groundwater for use in their homes and businesses.

Because of the risks, injecting treated sewage into groundwater is currently illegal in North Carolina. But Rep. Russell Tucker (D-Duplin) introduced House Bill H643, which would allow operators of any sewer system in the state to apply for permits to inject treated sewage – called “reclaimed water” in the bill — into aquifers for “temporary” storage. ONWASA proposed the bill and hired an expensive lobbyist, Sandy Sands, to push its passage. The bill is awaiting a hearing before the House Committee on Water Resources and Infrastructure.

As population growth continues to deplete groundwater sources throughout the country, injecting treated surface water or drinking water into the ground to recharge aquifers is becoming more common. At least 48 states, however, ban or discourage using treated sewage for that purpose.

Even using more benign treated surface water or drinking water has its risks.

  • The National Research Council, part of the National Academies of Science, found in 2001 that using chemically treated surface water posed a significant risk to groundwater quality. The report noted that treated water could still contain a higher concentration of bacteria and contaminants than the native groundwater. The study also found an increase of heavy metal concentrations, including mercury.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers found arsenic levels exceeding safe drinking water standards in areas where surface water or drinking water was injected into the ground.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey found that less than 25 percent of injected water would be available for reuse after studying a proposed project in South Carolina, suggesting that pumping treated wastewater into an aquifer may risk contaminating drinking water for very little potential recovery.

If the groundwater is contaminated, there is currently no law in North Carolina that requires nearby private well users to be notified. Even the best wastewater plants have treatment failures, and once it’s in the aquifer, there’s no getting it back out.

State agencies recently permitted two N.C. cities, Greenville and Wilmington, to pump treated drinking water into the ground to recharge aquifers.

The legislature needs to kill this flawed bill. If they intend to embark on this hazardous path, legislators should first appoint a study committee to answer several critical questions:

    • What type and degree of water treatment is necessary to ensure that no pathogens will survive in groundwater?
    • Will disinfectants such as chlorine lead to the formation of carcinogenic compounds that will move to broader groundwater areas?
    • What information is needed to ensure that the water being recharged is geochemically and microbiologically “compatible” with native groundwater?

Unanticipated reactions may lead to poor-quality water, biomass formation, pathogen growth and well clogging.

  • What monitoring is required to ensure that unforeseen water quality problems don’t affect broader groundwater resources? Who will pay for it?
  • What are the impacts of on property values? On land-use patterns?

Until questions such are those are answered, we should assume that pumping treated sewage into our aquifers poses a significant health risk.

We have asked ONWASA to pull H643 and ask the legislature to assign a study committee to the task of investigating potential benefits and risks and make recommendations to the next legislature. A bill to create such a committee was considered by the legislature in 2007 but never passed.
[back to the top]



Pollution in our oceans, especially plastic, is a global concern. Plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, as it degrades, but it can take hundreds or thousands of years to go away. Plastic is not biodegradable. Animals ingest plastic, choke on it, or get tangled in it. We’re literally changing the chemistry of our oceans with litter.

One of our biggest committments as a Riverkeeper organization is to get the trash out of our local waterways. Each year we hold five major clean ups; one in honor of Earth Day, and then four as part of our Tour de Trash river clean up series. We have a fleet of canoes and kayaks that we provide to participants to use for clean ups.

Tour de Trash takes participants to the four corners of our rivers, giving them a view of all of the different sides of our rivers. We have a lot of ground to cover, per se. The Tour de Trash clean ups encompass the New River in Onslow County and it’s many tributaries, Queens Creek in Swansboro, the Quarry Lakes in Maysville, the Newport River, and the White Oak River and it’s tributaries, including Hunters Creek.

Besides removing litter and trash from our precious ecosystem, our hope is to introduce as many new people as possible to the rivers through our volunteer opportunities. These clean ups are a great way to help educate the public about the issues and threats our rivers face, teach them how to take care of their waters, and introduce them to healthy, enviromentally sensitive recreation on the rivers.

Join us for one of our upcoming Tour de Trash clean ups! Sign up for a free membership at and then join our Meetup group if you want to get involved. We post all of our events there. You can RSVP, ask questions, communicate with other volunteers and keep up-to-date on the latest developments.
[back to the top]

Maple Hill Rock Quarry

In 2010, Martin Marietta (MM) asked Onslow County for a Special Use Permit to excavate a limestone quarry in the small, eastern North Carolina town of Maple Hill. This project raises serious environmental justice concerns. The residents believe, not inaccurately, that this massive, multi-national corporation has targeted a town with few financial resources and a history of holding little to no political power. Some of their homeowners approached our organization to help them fight this battle.

In addition to threatening the lifestyles and well-being of the Maple Hill community, the proposed rock quarry site is also located in one of the most biologically significant areas of North Carolina: the Maple Hill Savannas Macrosite. The Maple Hill Savannas is a cluster of Significant Natural Heritage Areas (SNHAs), which protect many rare plants and animals and natural communities that are unique to Onslow and Pender Counties, including one of the last remaining native populations of the Venus Flytrap. The list of rare plants and animals that can be found within one mile of the project can be viewed at the following website: Venus flytraps Many of these species are wetlands-dependent.

MM proposes to pump 9 million gallons per day out of the aquifer in order to dewater the quarry. Even when the ground appears dry in this area, the groundwater is often less than 12 inches from the surface. This proposal could lower groundwater levels by as much as 80 feet below ground level, drying up their wetlands and destroying what is left of the Savannas and the rare species that depend on it for their very survival.

The cone of depression (an area of lowered groundwater) from this massive project is projected to be 7.4 miles across and will not only have severe impacts on the surrounding wetlands, but could also dry up the flowers in neighboring creeks, including Sandy Run Creek and Shelter Swamp Creek, which flow into the Northeast Cape Fear, and Southwest Creek, a tributary of the New River.

As tragic as the loss of the wetlands would be for the ecology of eastern North Carolina, that’s not even considering the impact of adding 9 million gallons a day of dewatering discharge into one of these tiny headwater streams. Or the impact of wasting another 9 million gallons in a region that is already sinking an inch per decade due to over pumping of groundwater and is in the Coastal Capacity Use Area, where North Carolina has already identified serious groundwater supply issues in the deeper aquifers.

This project will dry up people’s wells and ponds, and also cause sinkholes. In addition, as there are hog farms located in this area, any sinkholes created could also create waste spills from the manure lagoons on these farms into the residents’ drinking water supply.

Mine dewatering discharges for the four currently permitted mines in Onslow County account for a permitted discharged of over 17 million gallons a day. If approved, this mine would waste another 9 million gallons a day, for a total of 26 million gallons of water wasted due to mine dewatering every day. Millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent managing our precious groundwater supplies to guarantee our continued access to clean drinking water.

We’ve met with the community many times and they were able to hire an attorney and a hydrogeologist to testify at the Special Use permit hearing. We were also able to receive phenomenal support from Pender Watch, Cape Fear River Watch and the Audobon Society in working with the community. The Nature Conservancy, NC Dept. of State Parks and the NC Natural Heritage Program sent letters of concern to the Board of Adjustment as well. We testified before the Board about the basic incompatibility with the Onslow County Comprehensive Plan and the impacts of yet another massive water-wasting industry on our drinking water supplies.

Against all odds, and after many hours of testimony over several months, the Onslow Board of Adjustment voted to deny MM’s Special Use Permit in December 2010, which was a great success for the Maple Hill community. We believe the Board of Adjustment made a good decision to deny MM’s request but this was just the beginning of the battle, as MM has already filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against Onslow County to attempt to overturn the Board’s decision.

None of us believe that MM is going to walk away from this idea. The rock on that site is worth a lot of money. They’ve been told they can’t quarry any closer to the coast because of saltwater intrusion and have already invested heavily in nonrefundable options to buy the quarry site and highly-paid experts to tell everyone they’re worried over nothing. We plan to help organize the community to promote education about the possible effects of this proposal.
[back to the top]

Mercury Contamination


Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally at low levels in rock, soil and water throughout North Carolina. Mercury is released into the air, water and land when fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are burned, when municipal solid waste or medical waste is incinerated, during forest fires and during some manufacturing processes. Coal‐fired electric power plants are the largest source of human‐caused mercury air emissions in the United States. Waterkeeper Alliance just launched a new campaign exposing the fact that “clean coal” is a dirty lie. Visit that web site at

According to the NC DAQ Toxic Air Pollutant Point Source Emission Reports from 2001 to 2005, more than 22,797 lbs of mercury were emitted from known point sources. The major source of such mercury is our own coal‐fired power plants, which in North Carolina accounts for 70% of man‐made airborne emissions of mercury, well above the national average. North Carolina ranks among the top 12 states with the highest mercury emissions from power plants. They have been polluting North Carolina with mercury and other harmful pollutants for decades.


Mercury is deposited onto the ground or directly into waterbodies as fallout from the air emissions of coal‐fired power plants and other sources. It can be washed from the land and carried to rivers, streams, and lakes by stormwater. When elemental mercury lands in water, it is transformed to methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury, by microorganisms found in water and sediment. Small aquatic organisms consume mercury as they feed, and then they are eaten by larger and larger animals, with the mercury accumulating at each step; this is called bioaccumulation. Fish that are higher in the food chain, such as largemouth bass, sharks, and swordfish have much higher mercury concentrations than fish that are lower on the food chain. Organic mercury concentrations can be more than 1,000 times greater in the fish than in the surrounding water. Humans become exposed when they eat fish that are contaminated with methylmercury.


High levels of mercury in developing fetuses and young children can irrevocably effect their neurological development leading to development delays and learning disabilities. Babies are exposed to mercury from their mothers’ blood in the womb, as well as from breast milk. Mercury poisoning can also cause lung, kidney, heart, and immune system damage. An estimated eight percent of women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury and the leading mercury researcher at the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 410,000 babies born each year in the U.S. have unsafe levels of mercury. Based on Centers for Disease Control data, the North Carolina Dept of Health and Human Services recently estimated that “at least 13,677 children per year” are born in NC with blood mercury levels that place them at risk for lifelong learning disabilities, fine motor and attention deficits, and lowered IQ.

In March of 2006, the NC Department of Health and Human Services revised the mercury fish consumption advisory and greatly expanded the number of species that woman of childbearing age and children under 15 should not consume.

Ocean fish:

  • Albacore** (white) tuna (fresh, frozen or canned)
  • Almaco jack
  • Banded rudderfish
  • Cobia
  • Crevalle jack
  • Greater amberjack
  • South Atlantic grouper (gag, scamp, red and snowy)
  • King Mackerel
  • Ladyfish
  • Little tunny
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Shark
  • Spanish mackerel
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish
  • Tuna, fresh or frozen**

Freshwater fish:

  • Blackfish (bowfin)*
  • Black Crappie***
  • Catfish (caught wild)*
  • Jack fish (chain pickerel)*
  • Largemouth bass (statewide)
  • Walleye from Lake Fontana and Lake Santeetlah (Graham and Wayne counties)
  • Warmouth*
  • Yellow Perch*

*High mercury levels have been found in blackfish (bowfin), catfish, jack fish (chain pickerel), warmouth, and yellow perch caught south and east of Interstate 85.
**Different species from canned light tuna
***High mercury levels have been found in black crappie caught south and east of Interstate 95.

For the most current fish consumption advisories visit: North Carolina Public Health

North Carolina Water Bodies are already overburdened by Mercury:

  • Just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 25‐acre lake. According to the most recent listing of impaired waters in NC, the following river basins contain fish with mercury levels that exceed safe levels for consumption:
  • “Basins under the mercury advice are the Cape Fear, Chowan, Lumber, Neuse, Pasquotank, Roanoke, White Oak and Yadkin-Pee Dee. All waters in these basins are Impaired in the fish consumption category, even when there is a site-specific advisory.”
  • The last basinwide plan for the Tar‐Pamlico River found that 54% of largemouth bass tested in the basin had greater than 0.4 mg/kg of mercury, the threshold for mercury fish consumption advisories in North Carolina.
  • Partial testing of less than 60% of North Carolina waters by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources determined that 1000 miles of North Carolina rivers plus an additional 29,522 acres of freshwater lakes, reservoirs and impoundments are impaired for mercury.

NOTICE: The proposed Titan Cement plant will release 263 pounds of toxic mercury into our local environment each year. Find out more here.
**Adapted from the NC Waterkeepers comments on Duke Energy’s proposed Cliffside Plant.
[back to the top]

Operation Medicine Drop

FACT: According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), every day, 2,500 youngsters age 12 to 17 try a painkiller for the first time, and teens abuse prescription drugs more than any illicit street drug except marijuana.

Operation Medicine Drop is a day of amnesty to dispose of unused, unwanted and expired medications in the home. The program allows people to drop off their unwanted medicines to law enforcement officials who then dispose of them in a safe and non-hazardous manner.

More than 70% of people who abuse prescription painkillers say they get them from home or right out of the medicine cabinets of family or friends. Operation Medicine Drop provides a way to join the fight against drug abuse, protect your family and pets against accidental ingestion and help keep our water clean and safe.

FACT:A vast array of pharmaceuticals undefined including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormonesundefinedhave been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, according to an Associated Press investigation. (USA Today, 3/11/08)

Operation Medicine Drop protects the environment and prevents pollution by helping our community properly dispose of unused medications. Studies show that flushing medications down the toilet or sink drain contaminates water supplies and endangers aquatic life in our rivers and streams; wastewater facilities aren’t designed to remove pharmaceutical chemicals.

Operation Medicine Drop Drug Take BackOperation Medicine Drop not only educates the public about the hazards of improper medication storage and disposal, but helps citizens get involved in making a difference in their communities.

In 2010 alone we took back almost 300,000 drugs and medications. The White Oak-New Riverkeeper Alliance, the Onslow County Sheriff’s Department, ONWASA, NC Cooperative Extension, Jacksonville Police Department and the city of Jacksonville have come together to support Operation Medicine Drop and to educate Onslow County residents about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and the easy accessibility of these drugs.

Visit the NC Department of Justice Operation Medicine Drop page to learn more about the statewide Operation Medicine Drop program and how the project will bring awareness to every county in North Carolina!
[back to the top]


The upper reaches of New River pass through several thousand acres of active agricultural land originally reclaimed from wetlands. Extensive drain tile systems were installed in these fields to move water from those fields into the New River. Most of this was accomplished in the late 1930s into the 1940s and virtually no record of locations exists. Unfortunately many of these drainage systems are still in place but have been subjected to considerable damage and deterioration. The damage to these drainage systems allows considerable sediment entry following even minimal rainfall. Locations of outfalls from these drainage systems are little known but must be located to initiate a sedimentation reduction effort. Another sedimentation source is massive coastal development on the freshwater creeks in the unincorporated Hubert to Sneads Ferry areas contiguous to the New River estuary. Stemming contaminants from these low lying lands with high groundwater tables is particularly important to the health of the adjacent shellfish beds.

The amount of New River sediment coursing to the coastal estuary presents a challenge that we are not winning. A decade ago the shoaling of the New River Inlet was mostly associated with tropical storm activity. We have not experienced severe weather events for a number of years, but severe shoaling now requires annual dredging of the inlet and many acres of shellfish bottom have been eliminated as a result of being covered in silt.

The White Oak River also travels through considerable agricultural land that was reclaimed from wetlands and forests. This reclamation has resulted in considerable sedimentation over the years and even though steps are underway to reduce this very serious source of pollution much more needs to be done.

As the land use along the shores of the White Oak and New Rivers rapidly changes from rural to urban the opportunities for non-point source sediment entry increase. Contractors and developers continue to follow the path of least resistance as they effectively oppose legislative safeguards and operate within a diffused, inadequate rulemaking and enforcement framework. Little incentive exists to reduce sediment and contaminant entry from construction sites by implementing best management practices. Existing rules are often ignored because the probability of detection is low and the penalty small.
[back to the top]

Stormwater Runoff

Stormwater runoff occurs when precipitation from rain or snowmelt flows over the ground. Hard (impervious) surfaces like roofs, driveways, sidewalks and streets prevent the stormwater from soaking into the ground.

Stormwater can pick up debris, chemicals, dirt, and other pollutants and flow into a storm sewer or directly to a lake, stream, river, wetland, or coastal water. Anything that enters a storm sewer system is discharged untreated into the waterbodies we use for swimming and fishing.

Polluted stormwater runoff can have many adverse effects on plants, fish, animals and people.

Sediment can cloud the water and make it difficult or impossible for aquatic plants to grow. Sediment also can destroy aquatic habitats, clog fish gills and smother shellfish bottom.

Excess nutrients from over-fertilization and animal waste can cause algae blooms. When algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic organisms can’t exist in water with low dissolved oxygen levels. Excess nutrients also contribute to the growth of aquatic weeds.

Bacteria and other pathogens can wash into swimming areas and create health hazards, often making beach closures necessary.

Debris such as plastic bags, six-pack rings, bottles, and cigarette butts – washed into waterbodies can choke, suffocate, or disable aquatic life like ducks, fish, turtles, and birds.

Household hazardous wastes like insecticides, pesticides, paint, solvents, used motor oil, and other auto fluids can poison aquatic life. Land animals and people can become sick from eating diseased fish and shellfish or ingesting polluted water.
[back to the top]

Wastewater Treatment

As of June 2007, within the New River watershed 22 privately owned, direct discharge package waste water treatment plants have a combined permitted daily flow of over 1,100,000 gallons per day into our low flow tidal waterway. In addition there are over 15,000 both onsite and off-site septic systems spread throughout. Burgeoning developments will only increase these discharges. With no central waste water treatment system available for the foreseeable future, all new developments will dispose of waste water through additional private package plants or septic systems.

Many of the privately owned waste water treatment plants are regularly penalized for violations to their NPDES permit yet those permits are routinely renewed without corrective actions being undertaken. The majority of these plants are small, but nearly all of their effluent finds its way into nutrient sensitive portions of the New River.

No monitoring of septic systems exists in North Carolina beyond initial installation. Soil composition variations from pure sand to heavy clay combined with a normally high water table contribute to a very high failure rate for septic systems. As a result of consistent population turnover due to frequent personnel transfers at the two military bases, many people are introduced to septic systems for the first time and are ignorant of proper operation and maintenance requirements. The cursory initial installation requirements, lack of proper maintenance, and lack of routine inspections explain but do not remedy the problem. Only effective education and inspection programs can reduce the number of failed septic systems. New River can ill afford the constant introduction of improperly treated waste water due to poorly maintained privately owned package treatment plants and malfunctioning septic systems. A realistic approach to waste water treatment must be undertaken to prevent the ever increasing fecal bacteria contamination being experienced throughout this watershed.
[back to the top]