Finite Supply: We Can Stretch Drowning Creek Only So Far
All concerned citizens of Moore County should recognize that Drowning Creek is a fragile and limited source of water for the town of Southern Pines and its water customers outside the town.
Here are some relevant facts.
Drowning Creek has its origin in a small spring on the Moore-Montgomery county line between Eagle Springs and Candor. Numerous branches feed into it as it makes its way in a generally southeasterly direction.
At some point, it changes its name to the Lumber River, but there is some disagreement about exactly where that happens.
One theory says that if you are standing on the Turnpike Road bridge (State Road 1412) on the Scotland-Hoke line looking upstream, it has to be Drowning Creek; if you are standing on the N.C. 401 bridge near Wagram looking downstream, it has to be Lumber River; if you are anywhere between Turnpike Road and N.C. 401, it is the observer's call.
The great North Carolina poet John Charles McNeill (1874-1907), a native of Scotland County, consistently called the river by its Indian name, Lumbee (meaning "black water"), and to many local residents in the Wagram area, this is the authentic name.
The name Lumbee does indeed appear in some colonial period records. It is also interesting to note that as early as 1749 the stream was referred to as Drowning Creek all the way down to Robeson County.
In 1809, the North Carolina General Assembly officially named it the Lumber River. At about the same time, legislation was enacted to create the Lumber River Navigation Company, which was charged with maintaining the river as a public waterway.
The Lumber flows into South Carolina near the Columbus County town of Fair Bluff, merges with the Little Pee Dee River east of Mullins, South Carolina, and then it is no more. The Little Pee Dee flows into the Great Pee Dee, which enters the Atlantic Ocean near Georgetown, South Carolina.
Premier Blackwater Stream
Drowning Creek/Lumber River is widely recognized as North Carolina's premier blackwater stream. (The blackwater streams of eastern North Carolina are so called because the high content of organic material gives them the appearance of having dark water.)
The Drowning Creek/Lumber River basin is of great environmental importance, containing a rich variety of plants and animals, including some that are federally designated as being of special concern, significantly rare, threatened, and endangered.
The stream is a great attraction for swimmers, anglers, canoeists, birders, hunters, and other nature lovers. In 1978, it was designated by the state as the Lumber River Canoe Trail, the state's first recreational water trail. In 1981, the federal government designated it as a National Canoe Trail, the first stream in the Southeastern United States to have that honor.
The state added it to the N.C. Trails System in 1984 as a recreation trail. In 1989 the state designated it as a North Carolina Natural and Scenic River. In 1998 the federal government designated it as a National Wild and Scenic River, the only blackwater stream in North Carolina to have that distinction. It is now the centerpiece of the Lumber River State Park, which is attempting to acquire land along the river from Scotland County to the South Carolina state line.
Averages Over the Years
U.S. Geological Survey information on Drowning Creek's streamflow at the U.S. 1 monitoring point (just downstream from the Southern Pines withdrawal point) is available for the period 1940 through 2007.
During that 68-year period, the average flow of the stream was 247.20 cubic feet per second (cfs), or 159.79 million gallons per day (mgd). The highest flow was in 1984 (396.50 cfs or 256.30 mgd), and the lowest was in 2002 (94.80 cfs or 61.28 mgd). The flow was below 200 cfs or 129.28 mgd for 15 of those 68 years. It was above 300 cfs or 193.92 mgd for the same number of years.
The 7Q10 flow is defined as the lowest average streamflow for seven consecutive days that occurs once every 10 years. The McGill Associates water report of 2008 says that the 7Q10 flow for Drowning Creek is 31.00 cfs or 20 mgd.
According to the Sandhills Capacity Use Study completed by state agencies in 1979, 7Q10 flows are not considered adequate for fish habitat. Extended flows at 7Q10 or lower will result in a reduction in fish habitat, concentration of pollutants, and an increase in water temperature.
The same document goes on to say that for a withdrawal of 6 mgd by Southern Pines, the flow of Drowning Creek would be below the 7Q10 for approximately 60 days during a 20-year drought and flows would be reduced by as much as 28.8 percent in that portion of the stream between the Southern Pines withdrawal point and the confluence of Aberdeen Creek, on which the Moore County wastewater treatment plant is located; and, if withdrawals by Southern Pines are increased beyond 6 mgd, it would necessitate higher levels of treated water to be produced by the wastewater treatment plant (currently with a 6.7 mgd capacity) in order to protect the downstream ecology.
Highly Variable Flow
Despite this conclusion, the state in 1992 issued the town of Southern Pines a permit to withdraw up to 8 mgd. The operating capacity of the town's water plant is 11 mgd. The state would permit Southern Pines to withdraw up to 14 mgd; but for all withdrawals that exceed 8 mgd, a minimum flow of 56 cfs or 36 mgd must be maintained in the creek downstream from the withdrawal point.
Withdrawals by Southern Pines in mid-2007 were averaging around 4.90 mgd. In March 2008, they were averaging around 2.2 mgd.
If one looks only at long-term streamflow averages, a case can be made that Drowning Creek can provide a bountiful supply of water to accommodate growth in Moore County. The problem is that the flow of the creek is highly variable from year to year and from season to season.
During periods of extreme drought, it is clear that no water at all should be withdrawn by Southern Pines from Drowning Creek. Periods of extreme drought are natural occurrences, and they will regularly be with us.
During the period 1986-87, for example, about a year after the Southern Pines water plant went into operation, the flow was reduced to 14.20 mgd for two days. There were also other periods in the succeeding years when the creek was drawn down below the 7Q10 level. During periods of 2002, the creek almost went dry. The same thing happened in August 2007, when Southern Pines reduced the streamflow on a couple of occasions to near zero.
Drowning Creek is protected by several state and federal laws.
The Natural and Scenic River law (NCGS 113-420-433), for example, states that "no department or agency of the state may assist by loan, grant, license, permit, or otherwise in the construction of any water resources project that would have a direct and adverse effect on any river that is designated as a component or potential component of the State Natural and Scenic Rivers System."
Federal regulations impose on state governments a strict anti-degradation policy relating to streams and rivers. The North Carolina Clean Water Act and the federal Water Pollution control Act also provide protections. The broad array of riparian rights laws generally provide that upstream users cannot infringe on the rights of downstream users.
Citizen enforcement actions may be taken under the provisions of 33 USCA 1365(a) (1). Citizen groups in Wagram and in Lumberton have in the past threatened to take legal action if Southern Pines withdrawals are found to damage the ecology of the creek.
We all need to recognize that Drowning Creek is a valuable but finite resource.
It is already being heavily stressed during periods of drought. It would be unrealistic and irresponsible for the citizens of Moore County and their elected officials to view this creek as being a significant potential source of water for the ever expanding growth that is predicted for Moore County.
This means that Moore County officials will either need to control the future demands for water more effectively or look for sources other than Drowning Creek. Also, the town of Southern Pines should make it clear to the military that Drowning Creek cannot be viewed as an unlimited source of water to accommodate expansion of facilities in Camp Mackall.
Further, the town should view the planned 140-million-gallon reservoir as an emergency supply for its own citizens during extreme droughts and other emergency situations, and not as an additional source of water to fuel growth in other parts of Moore County.
Finally, while recognizing that the current operating capacity of the plant is 11 mgd, given the fragile nature of this ecosystem, a prudent policy for Southern Pines to adopt would be to voluntarily cap the withdrawals at 8 mgd.
That would be responsible stewardship of a valuable resource.
Joseph R. McDonald, a member of Save Our Sandhills, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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