Residents of the community abutting Warrior Woods Lake in Southern Pines were warned Tuesday to stay out of the water.
About 750 gallons of raw sewage had been spilled in Mill Creek, and the creek had carried the excrement-containing muck to the lake. The spill was blamed on a leaky sewer main, the same explanation given for a spill that dumped more than 1,900 gallons of untreated wastewater in the lake on May 29.
A similar spill in August 2016 dumped 10,000 gallons of raw sewage, enough to fill an in-ground swimming pool. About 70,000 gallons were discharged in October 2014.
Residents have complained for years about the spills, which have accelerated the growth of algae in the 40-acre lake. Marsh Smith, a lawyer who lives in the Warrior Woods community, has repeatedly asked the Southern Pines Town Council to intervene.
He tried in June to persuade council members to populate the lake with sterile grass carp, a species known to feast on algae and other debris. The fish are sometimes used to clean ponds choked with vegetation.
Assistant Town Manager Chris Kennedy did not offer an opinion on the algae-eating fish. Instead, he discussed "a necessary easement and remedy" that could help alleviate future spills, according to minutes from the meeting.
Having recently decided not to seek re-election, Mayor David McNeill said he simply wanted the problem fixed before he left office in the fall. He instructed the town’s staff to consult with an engineer and come up with a solution.
Municipal elections were held Tuesday across Moore County, and many Southern Pines residents were voting for the town’s next mayor when Smith and his neighbors learned of the most recent spill.
On Wednesday morning, Smith staged a “protest swim” at nearby Reservoir Park Lake. He entered the chilly water shortly after 5:30 a.m. and made a triangular lap around the impoundment, where swimming is prohibited by the town.
“I figure if they dump (expletive) in my lake, I can go swimming in their lake,” said Smith, who has lived in Warrior Woods for 42 years.
The night before his swim, Smith wondered if he would be arrested for trespassing in the lake (he wasn’t). He had invited other residents to participate in the demonstration, but he didn’t expect any of them to show up (they didn’t).
Smith has conducted several protest swims over the years. While local officials were mostly unfazed by his previous trespasses, he decided to take another dip in the forbidden lake anyway.
“I hope my protest will bring the issue into sharper focus,” Smith said. “It might not, but I’m an optimistic person.”
According to the advisory issued Tuesday morning, the sewer main that caused the spill has required “several repairs in the last few years” and was in the process of being replaced when the leak was discovered. Smith acknowledged that the town “is trying to fix things” by replacing the dated infrastructure.
Neither Kennedy or Reagan Parsons, the town manager, immediately responded to phone messages from The Pilot seeking comment on Thursday.
In a news release, the town said the state Division of Water Resources has been notified of the spill, and the agency is “reviewing the matter.” Residents of Warrior Woods are advised “to refrain from any activities” at the lake until further notice, the release said.
Paul Harkness has lived in Warrior Woods for the past six years. The repeated wastewater spills, he said, have taken a visible toll on the lake.
“I’m not going to say the damage is done, but there has been a significant change in the lake during the amount of time that I’ve been there,” said Harkness, who runs a custom jewelry store in downtown Southern Pines. “The nutrients that have been discharged in the lake have contributed significantly to the algae. There are more weeds; the water is murky and dark. It’s not pleasant.”
The town said bacterial tests will be performed to determine the extent of the latest contamination, a practice that has followed past spills.
Sally Tile, whose house overlooks the lake, began questioning the veracity of the tests after she observed a contractor collecting bacterial samples from the shallow water at the edge of her property. She asked the tester to gather samples from deeper water, where she and other residents were more likely to come in contact with contaimination.
Her request was not entirely unwarranted. Tile said she was diagnosed with separate E. coli infections following two previous spills, though she can’t say for certain if the wastewater was responsible.
Harkness said the lake’s rampant vegetation regularly clogs up his irrigation system, which was “trouble-free” only a few years ago. He is not convinced that algae-eating fish, the solution proposed by Smith, will be enough to fix the problem.
“At this point, I don’t know how they’re going to remediate the lake,” he said.