Spotlight- The Lower Neuse River

By Katy Hunt, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper

Image of an old postcard of the Neuse River near Goldsboro, NC. (Dixon-Hollowell Co.)

The Neusiok word, “Neuse,” means peace. Floating down the river or fishing from the bank is very peaceful, though the water quality of the Neuse is quite tumultuous.

The Neuse Basin has so much to offer by way of recreation, economics, and tourism, and is a drinking water resource for many communities. At 275 miles, it is the longest river entirely contained in North Carolina. The lower portion of the basin also has an interesting and varied landscape; the river transforms from free flowing river to a slower moving, brackish estuary ending at the Pamlico Sound where it holds the record for widest river in the country at 6 miles across.

Estuaries provide vital nursery habitat for many species of fish. In the Neuse, approximately 2,750 acres of estuarine water is home to species including shad, catfish, and bass. Over 90% of commercial seafood in North Carolina is caught in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary. These waters are also home to coastal birds, oysters, crabs, plants, and more. The natural beauty of the area combined with the presence of wildlife makes it a popular draw for kayakers and anglers. Alligators are a common sight and dolphins and sharks have even been spotted as far upstream as New Bern.

Unfortunately, the quality of the water is not quite as picturesque as the river itself. For decades the Neuse basin has been polluted from municipal and agricultural processes. The rivers and streams that make up the Neuse basin wind through towns and agricultural lands, whose runoff amounts to serious problems for the river.

Stormwater runoff introduces many various pollutants into the river system including nutrients, bacteria, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, sediments, and more. Most of these are fairly obvious as harmful to the environment, however, the most damaging is the least expected one: nutrients. We all know the old adage, “too much of a good thing is a bad thing.” In the case of nutrients like Nitrogen and Phosphorus, it is a disastrous thing. Nutrients fertilize the algae in the water which leads to algal “blooms.” After the algae dies, the decomposition process uses up the oxygen in the water leaving little to none for fish and other aquatic creatures. These events, combined with warmer water temperatures in the summer months, lead to large and devastating fish kills.

These massive fish kills pose risks to human health and negatively affect recreation and tourism. In July of 2015 an estimated 150,000 fish died as a result of low oxygen levels, creating a dead zones in the water, and we have seen many fish kills – smaller, but still significant – in recent years as well. There have also been larger kills like in 2016 where estimates put the death toll between 200,000 to a million. Fish kills are a regular occurrence on the river and have been for years. It has become a fact of life, but a fact that should not be accepted, While there are rules in place to manage the amount of nutrients within the river system, it is clear that these rules are not strict enough to be effective.

Despite the problems facing the Lower Neuse River and its estuary, it is still a vital resource for those living in the basin. Beyond the basic needs of drinking water and food, economic uses and tourism, the river is worth protecting. The Neuse river, as its name suggests, provides a sense of peace, something we all need in our lives. It’s a feeling that should be shared and passed on for future generations. It is estimated that the Neuse River is one of the oldest in the country at 2 million years old. Around 14,000 years ago Native Americans were settling along the banks of the river. New Bern was established as the first capital of North Carolina due to the import opportunities provided by the river. The river has been here long before us and will remain long after we are gone. The Neuse River belongs to all of us. It’s there for us to enjoy and it’s our responsibility to be good stewards of all that it has to offer.