High Rock Lake is filled with toxic algae blooms fed by human and animal sewage, and storm-water runoff. And it would cost millions of dollars to control the problem, water-quality experts said Friday night.
The pollution in the lake, which is part of the Yadkin River, reflects the polluted lakes, rivers and streams across the state and nation, said JoAnn Burkholder, the director of the Center of Applied Aquatic Ecology at N.C. State University in Raleigh.
“High Rock Lake is receiving a lot of pollution,” Burkholder told more than 50 people gathered in the Byrum Welcome Center at Wake Forest University. “High Rock Lake has a sewage signature.”
Burkholder was the keynote speaker for a panel discussion about the threats to the Yadkin River and the strategies to improve the river. The WFU Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and the Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. sponsored the discussion.
The event was held on the United Nations’ annual World Water Day, which brings attention to the importance of freshwater and advocates for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.
The Yadkin River begins near Blowing Rock and travels 203 miles the across central North Carolina. It provides drinking water for a number of cities and towns, including Winston-Salem, Statesville, Lexington and Salisbury.
It becomes the Pee River in South Carolina and travels another 230 miles before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Georgetown, S.C. The Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin covers 7,221 square miles and affects a population of 1.67 million, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Population growth has caused storm-water runoff that carries eroded soil, fertilizer, pesticides, metallic chemicals and pollutants from construction sites, residential areas and paved surfaces into the Yadkin River, state officials have said. Pollution from wastewater treatment plants and animal waste also enters the river in both states.
Burkholder and Cy Stober, the water-resources manager of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, said High Rock Lake needs a management plan to control pollutants.
However, the lake isn’t a source of drinking water for Triad towns and cities, Stober said. That means local governments wouldn’t require to pay for a management plan to control pollution in the lake, he said.
“So who will pay for this,” Stober asked the audience.
Stober said he hoped local governments within the lake’s watershed, including Winston-Salem, Lexington and Salisbury, would contribute money to such a plan.
Andy Miller, director of the Davidson Soil and Water Conservation District, said that if Davidson farmers and livestock operators pay for pollution management plan at the lake, then consumers can expect to see higher food prices at grocery stores.
Regardless of the cost, the river and High Rock Lake need a plan to control pollution, said Dean Naujoks, executive director of the Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. The river starts out pristine, but it is later polluted by animal waste and municipal wastewater systems, including one operated by the city of Winston-Salem that dumps 35 million gallons of treated sewage into the river every day, Naujoks said.
He added that 20 million gallons of raw sewage has flowed into the High Rock Lake since 2009. That includes more than 1.9 million gallons of untreated sewage mixed with rainwater spilled in late February into Yadkin River in Elkin and two creeks in Thomasville when steady rain increased the flow in rivers and creeks in Northwest North Carolina, authorities said.
The river and lake can be protected from further pollution, Naujoks said.
“We need political leadership,” he said. “We have to invest money into water resources if we are going to have clean drinking water.”