It’s a sunny, abnormally warm October afternoon, and Tom Anspach is ready to meet it with a canoe on the Pigeon River.
But Anspach, accompanied by 19-year-old Josh Arford, isn’t there to paddle for miles or fish for trout. He’s there to fish for trash.
Just like Haywood County’s watershed, fed by springs that all have their start inside county borders, Cherokee mythology surrounding places in Haywood is all about beginnings.
“All of the Cherokee myths and legends here in Haywood County are about origins,” Barbara Duncan, education director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, told the crowd gathered at Haywood Waterways Association’s end-of-year banquet last week. “This is a fascinating parallel to me with the geography.”
There’s excitement in the air as the class, its members scattered across the Pigeon River under cloudy skies in Canton, hunches over the water in an enthusiastic search. Slightly encumbered by awkwardly bulging, oversize wader suits, class members turn over rocks, shuffle their feet across the river bottom and generally stir things up to flush any nearby aquatic creatures into their waiting nets.
Haywood Waterways Association has provided this education program year after year for eighth-graders in Haywood County, but on Sept. 24, the class wasn’t composed of over-energetic teenagers.
Take a walk in mid-May, and you probably won’t get far before finding somebody bent over a garden bed, weeding. Eric Romaniszyn and Christine O’Brien were doing just that on a warm Thursday afternoon, but they weren’t in a garden — they were on a stream bank. Specifically, they were on the bank alongside Richland Creek at Vance Street Park in Waynesville.
“We try to take every little piece out,” Romaniszyn said, yanking a clump of Japanese knotweed roots out of the dirt and stowing them in the trash bag by his side.
A trust fund backed by Progress Energy that has funneled more than $2 million and counting to water quality projects in Haywood County since the mid-1990s is not in jeopardy following the merger of the utility with Duke Energy.
While the Pigeon River Trust Fund isn’t threatened in the short term, the lucrative water quality funding stream isn’t a sure bet forever.
The annual payment of $290,000 ponied up by Progress Energy — and soon by Duke post merger — will eventually run out.
A $500 grant was awarded to Haywood Waterways Association by the Haywood County Community Foundation to expand Haywood Waterways’ sediment monitoring program and establish five new monitoring sites in the Raccoon Creek watershed.
The new sites will help identify areas where sediment, the top water quality problem in Haywood County, is running off. Once identified, Haywood Waterways and its partners can seek grants to assist willing landowners correct these problems.
The sediment monitoring program in the Raccoon Creek Watershed is a smaller part of a county-wide effort that was started more than nine years ago.
In 2006, the state designated as “impaired” sections of Richland and Raccoon creeks, meaning there weren’t as many fish and bug species as a clean stream should have. Haywood Waterways and its partners, including Haywood Soil & Water Conservation District, are working to reduce sedimentation throughout the Richland Creek Watershed, which includes Raccoon Creek.
Sediment enters streams and lakes though erosion and runoff. Once in the water sediment fills the spaces between rocks and smothers the spaces where macroinvertebrate insects live and fish lay eggs. Sediment also clogs intake pipes for industry and agriculture, as well as favorite swimming holes.
Tom Anspach wrestled 1,020 pounds of trash out of the Pigeon River around the Canton Recreation Park over the past year nearly single-handedly.
The magnanimous effort landed Anspach the title of volunteer of the year by Haywood Waterways Association. Anspach took on the task of dredging trash from the Pigeon through Haywood Waterways Adopt-A-Stream program.
“I live on the Pigeon River,” Anspach said. “I canoe and swim in it all year and love it. I was getting depressed at the amount of trash in the river and wanted to do something about it. After my first clean up I was hooked.”
Other organizations recognized by Haywood Waterways in 2010 include:
• Haywood Community College, Partner of the Year. HCC has been a champion of sustainability and low impact development projects, including working towards storm water neutrality on campus. The college has not only led by example, but taken an active role in community sustainability efforts: HCC President Rose Johnson co-chairs the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Green Business Initiative; wildlife and biology students are active in the Adopt-A-Stream program; the college hosts an Earth Day celebration, and the annual Big Sweep is coordinated by a college instructor.
• Pigeon River Fund of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina received the Pigeon River Award. Pigeon River Fund is a significant funding source for projects that protect water quality in Haywood County. Over the years the Pigeon River Fund has awarded over $2 million to organizations in Haywood County.
The awards, accompanied by framed photographs of a local stream by nature photographer Ed Kelley, were presented at Haywood Waterways annual banquet in December.
After years of being the in-the-stream science guy behind Haywood Waterways Association, Eric Romaniszyn is taking the helm as the nonprofit’s executive director, something he sees as a natural outgrowth of his work in conservation biology.
“Doing what I do now is in some ways a lot like what I did growing up,” Romaniszyn said. “Turning over rocks in streams and seeing what’s underneath.”
Romaniszyn succeeded Ron Moser as executive director in January, and since then, he’s been working hard to make up the gap on his predecessor as a bookkeeper.
“Ron brought a lot of skill in record-keeping and accounting, and my strong suit is on the science side,” Romaniszyn said. “So that’s been my biggest challenge.”
With a supportive board and Moser just a phone call away, though, Romaniszyn is ready to take on Haywood Waterways perennial challenge –– restoring the rivers and streams of Haywood County to a pristine state –– with his own set of skills.
Originally from northwest Pennsylvania, Romaniszyn grew up fishing and exploring the rivers and streams of the northern Appalachians. He went on to get a master’s degree in aquatic entomology from the University of Georgia and did his research at the United States Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Lab in Macon County, where he fell in love with the mountains of Western North Carolina.
He settled on studying aquatic insects because of his love of fishing and because of a supportive advisor who told him bugs were a good way to go.
“The problem with biologists is we’re interested in everything,” Romaniszyn said. “It’s hard to find a niche.”
Romaniszyn and his wife both lucked out to find jobs in the region in their field. His wife, Kathleen, is a sociology professor and dean at Western Carolina University.
Since 2004, Romaniszyn, who’s now 38, has been using his science to organize and educate property owners in Haywood County about the benefits of creating a clean and healthy Pigeon River watershed.
The Haywood Waterways Association is small shop –– one-and-a-half full time staff right now –– that acts as a facilitator to arrange the funding, technical assistance, and community cooperation that can make a watershed healthier. The work primarily involves leveraging grants and matching funds to engaging partnerships between agencies that have technical resources and landowners.
“We find the money and technical resources, and then we work with partners to get it to the landowners,” Romaniszyn said.
They’re the good cops in the environmental world, giving other people’s money to landowners who can’t afford to clean up their failed septic systems or don’t know how to build driveways without intensifying runoff.
Romaniszyn points to Haywood Waterway’s record of obtaining grants with pride. The nonprofit has applied for 80 grants since its inception and gotten 76, bringing a whopping $5.8 million to Haywood County during that period.
The organization’s aim is to reduce all the pollution that runs off the land and ends up in the creeks and streams — from hog manure to over-use of pesticides to oily residue from parking lots. Erosion from construction is the worst culprit for water pollution these days.
In a current project that demonstrates its mission and function, Haywood Waterways has partnered with N.C. Department of Environment, Mountain Projects, and property owners to repair septic systems in the Hyatt Creek watershed.
Romaniszyn’s biggest challenge is following through on his board’s mission to build reserve accounts and an endowment over the next 10 years that will guarantee Haywood Waterways Association’s future in perpetuity.
But those ambitious goals are part and parcel of his experience at Haywood Waterways, and he’s happy to have a board with high expectations.
“We’ve really grown in the last six years,” Romaniszyn said. “Every week seems to bring a new project. It’s just been a challenge to make sure we have the resources to do everything.”
Haywood Waterways Association recently gave out 2009 stewardship awards to several people and organizations that have worked to protect and improve the waterways of Haywood County.
n Volunteer Organization of the Year went to Mike Gillespie and the Richland Creek Streamkeepers. Gillespie, a local dentist, organized a group of students to adopt a section of Richland Creek around Vance Street Park in Waynesville. The Streamkeepers conducted several cleanups in 2009 and removed over 36 bags of trash.
“It is important to expose our youth to the pollution issues affecting our waterways, not only so they appreciate our water but also understand ways they can help protect it,” Gillespie said.
n Partner of the Year went to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Wildlife commission officers help every year with Haywood Waterways’ “Kids in the Creek Program,” a field trip that exposes students to aquatic life and the effect of pollution on water. The Wildlife Commission also helps with education events at the Maggie Valley Trout Festival each year, constructed handicap fishing access piers on Richland Creek in Vance Street Park and on the Pigeon River in Canton, and is a valuable member of the Haywood Waterways Technical Advisory Committee.
The Wildlife Resources Commission is leading the Pigeon River Recovery Project. This project is restoring native fish and mollusk populations downstream of Canton, and is a collaborative effort with many organizations and agencies. They’ve even set up educational aquariums at several local schools.
n The Pigeon River Award went to a state program that eliminates sources of raw sewage going into streams. Failing septic systems and in some cases straight-piping funnel raw sewage from homes into creeks. The program, under the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, helps identify culprits and provides funds to fix the problem when it involves a low-income household.
The program is currently surveying the entire Richland Creek watershed to identify problem spots.
Ed Kelley from Ridge Runner Naturals Gallery and Studio in Waynesville provided the awards for the winners. www.haywoodwaterways.org.