Crystal Clear Intentions for Yadkin Riverkeeper

A Q&A with Will Scott

By Justin Catanoso Triad Next

WINSTON-SALEM — Will Scott, 30, a native of Chatham County, became the Yadkin Riverkeeper in November, its second since the environmental organization was founded in 2008. It’s a big job.

The Yadkin River basin is the second largest in the state. It covers 7,000 square miles in the western Triad and central Piedmont, and is the primary drinking-water supply for 700,000 residents, many of them in Winston-Salem. Keeping that water source clean from industrial discharge, agricultural run-off and coal-ash pond seeps are top priorities.

I met with Scott, an environmental lawyer with a degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, in the organization’s office in downtown Winston-Salem. He told me that as a kid, he was warned away from the nearby Haw River because of factory pollution. But up in the mountains of Yancey County, where neighbors had a cabin, the water of the South Toe River was so pristine that he could see fish rushing past his face as he swam with goggles.

“When I think about the next generation, and our largest rivers and tributaries,” Scott told me, “that’s the kind of experience I want more people in North Carolina to have.”

Riverkeeper is such a grand job title. What exactly do you do?

It sounds like something out of a Tolkein novel or something out of Chaucer. The cooper, the miller, the baker, and the riverkeeper. In an old community, someone takes care of the commons. I feel that’s our role. Working with these communities to find agreements about how they want to treat their waters.

What’s an example?

Part of our mission is being a first responder. Someone sees something orange in the river, they call us up. We go out, test it, call some scientists and figure out the appropriate response. I see us as a bridge organization between people who live on the river, and scientists at research universities, nonproifits, the EPA, the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.

The coal ash disaster on the Dan River a year ago exposed big problems with state environmental protection.

I’ve been frustrated at the direction North Carolina is heading. I really see the protections we had as fitting with a vision of development that a lot of residents shared. We have a beautiful state and people want to move here because of that. Agritourism, viticulture and outdoor recreation are growing industries. I want to see Raleigh embracing that progressive vision in all sectors — rural areas and bigger cities — and I see the state’s (eight) river keepers as being able to bring those two together.

Can politics impede your ability to be effective?

Most of our basin is rural and deeply red. But when you talk about clean water, that’s not an issue that falls along party lines. Communities and county commissioners see it as a long-term interest, and we’re fighting to help them protect that. When you get people on the ground and on the river, those broader ideological identifications fall away. We have more in common than you might think.

How is the Dan River recovering?

The biggest impact is that the toxins in the coal ash have settled into the river bottom and mud. In the water column itself, since there is not an ongoing discharge, the water is clearing. But those toxins are being trapped in the mud and may be there a very long time, and can be stirred up my storm events. Understanding the long-term impact of adding all those toxins to the river system and aquatic life is something we don’t have a good model for doing right now.

A big threat to water quality in the basin is what you call “nutrient overload,” or chemical runoff from agriculture, industry and urbanization.

Sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous are the major runoff factors that change what lives in the water and have to be filtered out for consumption. This is costly. You have someone saving money through free dumping and runoff, and someone else paying to filter it out. We think it’s cheaper in the long run to keep the water cleaner so less filtration is needed. The Yadkin has been degraded over the past several generations as we’ve had all this industry and rural agriculture. A big part of our nutrient management strategy is to determine how to allocate the costs to reduce this threat.

Isn’t environmental protection at odds with business interests?

I don’t think so. Business is really good at is long-term planning and deciding where they want to be in five to 10 years. Our job is to make sure business bears the costs of their own activities (through runoff, discharge and seeps). That could put us at odds with the business community. But when you have communities and businesses here in the Yadkin basin looking at the long term, our interests are aligned in a lot of ways. We all need clean water.

Justin Catanoso, former executive editor, is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His column in Triad Business Journal appears monthly.