Several years ago, the namesake feature of Fisher River Park in Surry County was a hazard.
The riverbanks had eroded to the point of becoming steep, dangerous cliffs. People couldn’t get near the water without risking life and limb, prompting management to close off that entire area of the park.
Good thing Surry County officials knew to call Resource Institute in Winston-Salem.
The national nonprofit garnered funding to restore the Fisher River banks to their previous, natural condition, also helping with the design and construction. The river has not only become a focal point for park users again, wildlife has returned thanks to the improved water quality.
While the majority of Resource Institute’s 40 current water resource projects are here in North Carolina, it can handle work anywhere in the world. Its chairperson, Michael “Squeak” Smith, says no other nonprofit in the country is like it.
“There are for-profit companies that do stream restoration work, but we offer a full-service product to folks who come to us asking for our assistance,” says Smith. “From finding funds and helping determine what it is they want to do, to hiring and coordinating the design work and construction, we take care of all aspects.”
Incorporated in 2001, Resource Institute was born out of a need in North Carolina to help get more water resource projects off the ground. Its origin traces back to 1998, when a pair of Winston-Salem-based resource conservation and development organizations — Pilot View RC&D and Environmental Impact RC&D — worked together to spin off Resource Institute.
Ever since then, says Smith, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
“Anyone can come to us for assistance, whether a farmer, a county, or a corporation,” Smith says. “They often call and say they heard about us, and we sit down and talk about what their vision is. We try to give them insights on how they may accomplish it, and go from there.”
Charles Anderson, project developer and funding liaison for Resource Institute, says clients approach Resource Institute usually for one of three reasons.
“They have a problem and don’t know how to resolve it,” he says. “They don’t have the technical staff to do the work, or they don’t have the funding to do it and are looking for an avenue to resolve the problem they have in their community or watershed.”
Resource Institute doesn’t take every project it’s pitched, and there’s a slight criteria that must be considered. Anderson says it must meet the mission of the organization, to provide a public benefit while improving water resources. Smith adds that the end result should also have a wide impact on the community, not only improving water quality but also creating jobs, benefiting local wildlife, and reducing costs to local governments.
When a project does meet those standards, step one is often finding the funding. That process has changed dramatically from when Resource Institute started, says Anderson. Back then, nonprofits received grant money up front. Now, organizations must pay for projects, then get reimbursed via the grant.
“Most nonprofits don’t want to get involved with that,” Anderson says.
Smith says while about 75 percent to 85 percent of the work Resource Institute does relates to water resources, it also takes on infrastructure projects. Two years ago, for instance, it helped Forsyth Technical Community College fund and build a sewer line to its campus in Walnut Cove.
But Smith says he anticipates water quality issues to continue to grow in importance. Right now, he’s in talks with state representatives in Raleigh to address flooding issues stemming from hurricane damage.
“Rivers have tributaries that get clogged with debris that builds up over time,” he says. “So every time we get another storm, there’s more debris and more flooding. Stabilizing riverbanks and opening these inlets and tributaries back up can reduce the amount of damage we get from every storm going forward.”
Meanwhile, Smith, Anderson and the rest of the Resource Institute team are fielding calls for help from other parts of the state. They’re working with farmers in western North Carolina, for instance, to change the way they raise and harvest crops to preserve watersheds there.
“If we write a grant, we follow through all the way,” Anderson says.