The Pigeon River Trust Fund, which gets $290,000 annually from Progress Energy, will continue to land the yearly disbursements — only now with Duke Energy’s signature on the check.
The trust fund supports a litany of water quality initiatives and education in Haywood County, from stream fieldtrips for middle school students to repairing eroding stream banks to monitoring pollution.
“It is an unbelievable asset,” said Peggy Melville, who’s served on the Pigeon River Fund board on and off for a dozen years.
The trust fund was created in the mid-1990s by what was then CP&L, the predecessor of Progress Energy. The utility offered up annual payments for water quality projects in exchange for negative environmental impacts caused by its hydropower dam on the Pigeon River. Water is diverted from the riverbed and sent through pipes over land for several miles to the power house, significantly dewatering a stretch of the Pigeon River near the Tennessee line in the process.
“The Pigeon River Fund was and remains part of the effort to mitigate the plant’s operations and its impacts to the river,” said Mike Hughes, a former spokesperson for Progress and now for Duke.
Haywood keeping its place in line
The Pigeon River Fund is tapped by three counties — Haywood, Buncombe and Madison. But, Haywood gets the biggest seat at the table.
Projects within Haywood are guaranteed at least 50 percent of the grant money, as long as enough worthy projects from Haywood step forward.
When the deal was struck, the Haywood-leaning formula was a no-brainer. The dam and the river lie in Haywood County, and in the Pigeon River watershed, so the authors of the deal reasoned the lion share should be spent there. Since the Pigeon flows into the French Broad, which runs through Buncombe and Madison on its way to Tennessee, those counties were included in the agreement.
There was a catch, however.
“Haywood was supposed to get half the money — if it had worthy projects,” recalled Ron Moser, the former director of Haywood Waterways Association who retired two years ago.
At the time the fund was created, Haywood County didn’t have a nonprofit water quality group. Without a go-to organization to write and pitch grant applications, they feared the money could be sucked up by more established groups in Buncombe County.
Thus, Haywood Waterways Association was born, Moser said.
“We wanted to make sure Haywood County got its fair share,” Moser said. “The main purpose of creating the organization was to have a local entity that would do its best to make we sure the half that was supposed to come here stayed here.”
The concept of a trust fund as a form of environmental mitigation from a utility was pretty novel at the time, according to Tim Richards, a program administrator with the Community Foundation for Western North Carolina, which manages the trust fund.
“There were some strong personalities at that time from Haywood County who pushed for things and were very instrumental in getting the start up of Haywood Waterways,” Richards said. “To really do good work in Haywood County, there needed to be an entity, and there was not one.”
Now 17 years later, Haywood Waterways has become an embedded part of the community fabric, practically a household name. It has steered the vision and implementation of most of the water quality projects in Haywood County funded by the Pigeon River Fund.
Haywood has had some off years, however. It’s share of funding has fallen below the 50 percent threshold five times during the life of the trust fund — typically dipping only slightly below 50 percent, but one year coming in with only 42 percent of the funding.
Most of those below average years were in the early days of the trust fund. In the past seven years, Haywood’s share of funding has dipped below 50 percent only once — compared to four times in the first 10 years.
All told, the Pigeon River Fund has given out $4.09 million in grants, with $2.278 million going to Haywood — an average of 55.8 percent.
“Some years you could get some really great grant proposals from one area and not the other,” said Ron Leatherwood, an early Pigeon River Fund board member and a contractor in Waynesville. “Typically the cream rose to the top, and the really good proposals got funded.”
Organizations that regularly tap Pigeon River Funds have grown more savvy and advanced in the caliber of projects they pitch in the past decade, Melville said.
“Prior to that, we did have difficulty getting quality grant requests,” Melville said. “We did lots of grants, but not always quality.”
Hook, line and sinker
The job of doling out the grants falls to the 11 members of the Pigeon River Fund board. The trust fund is managed and administered by the Community Foundation for Western North Carolina and gets reviewed by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to make sure the funds are being spent on water quality initiatives.
As with anyone holding the purse strings of a trust fund, they have to weigh whether to fund the same nonprofits year after year — or to spread the wealth.
Most trust funds shy away from funding the same projects year in and year out, especially when it comes to someone’s salary.
But not the Pigeon River fund board. The board has consistently funded the salaries and operations of the Haywood Waterways Association for almost 17 years.
HWA, after all, is the go-to nonprofit for water quality in Haywood County. Without HWA, there would be no one to carry out water quality initiatives on the ground — which are the very mission of the Pigeon River Fund.
“Haywood Waterways is a poster child for the Pigeon River fund,” Melville said.
Haywood Waterways had an uncanny ability to use Pigeon River dollars as seed money to land even larger grants.
“We leveraged their money 16-to-1,” Moser said.
Haywood Waterways Association can’t rest on its laurels, however.
“With the current economic climate, the competition for grants in general, including the Pigeon River funds, has seemed to get more competitive,” said Eric Romaniszyn, the current director of Haywood Waterways. “We have seen a little bit more competition. How do we continue to make ourselves stand out as a group that can get things done in the county?”
The Pigeon River board makes two rounds of grant funding a year. Part of the application strategy is knowing who else is applying and for what, and timing your own application accordingly.
“To be frank, there aren’t that many people working in water quality in these three counties, and most of them know us. They know when to approach us for what,” Richards said.
Romaniszyn said he regularly consults with Richards and gauges his feedback on what the board is interested in funding that year.
“If you have a pretty solid project that meets their goals, it is almost a no-brainer. But if you have a vague project, that can be a roll of the dice,” Romaniszyn said.
One of Haywood Waterways standing initiatives is water quality education for public school children in Haywood County. Environmental lessons on water quality are incorporated into elementary school curriculum. And in middle school, every student goes on a field day that takes them into the water — known as Kids in the Creek. Kids in the Creek gives students hands-on understanding and appreciation for healthy streams.
“The source of funds the Pigeon River has given them over the years has led to a great educational resource,” Leatherwood said.
Another recurring project is pollution monitoring of waterways, from sediment to bacteria.
“They are paying for us to get basic knowledge about the conditions of our waterways so we know what is impaired,” Romaniszyn said. “But, it also lets us leverage grants from state and federal funding because they want to know ‘do you indeed have a problem?’”
More than 200 water quality grants have been awarded by the Pigeon River Fund since its inception. A few examples include:
• repairing failing septic tanks
• repairing erosion along streambanks
• land conservation in river plains
• creekside fishing piers
• demonstration rain gardens to trap run-off
• environmental summer day camps for kids
• aquatic species restoration
• greenway improvements
• informational sign boards on water quality issues