Dawson's Creek is flooded with raw sewage

The idyllic North Carolina waters, home to eagles and ospreys, face an unprecedented ecological disaster

Published July 17, 2014 12:19PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on OnEarth.org.

OnEarth To get to the island I push off from my own backyard. I did not become a homeowner until I was 49 years old, and perhaps the greatest pleasure of this property in coastal North Carolina is that water laps its edges. In this way, and by the liquid tendril of a salt marsh, I am connected to so many other places in the watery world, and given enough energy, time, supplies, and fair weather, I could paddle to the end of my creek, bang a left, and end up back on the beaches of Cape Cod, the place I moved here from. My journey today is more modest: I am paddling my kayak downstream to a neighbor’s dock, where I will ready it for tomorrow’s three-mile trip east to Masonboro, one of the few undeveloped barrier islands left in this region, where my friend Hones and I will camp for four days.

“Not in my backyard.” This phrase is sometimes used as a club to beat environmentalists who are seen as overly concerned with their home turfs while ignoring the rest of the messy world. But so much of environmental activism, and environmental literature, springs from knowing one’s place. The writers I admire, from Henry David Thoreau to Wendell Berry, have fallen in love with their own backyards and, in Berry’s case at least, have taken the metaphor further, talking of marrying their home lands. I, by contrast, have long seen myself as a polygamist of place, launching continuing and overlapping love affairs with Cape Cod, Colorado, and now Carolina. My life has had a vagabond flavor, and there are two implicit ironies in the fact that I have finally found a home in this place where I never expected to be.

The first irony is how I got here. My wife and I had been living on Cape Cod for six years and thought we had found true home; we loved the long, cold walks on the beach, the millions of birds migrating through, the seals lounging on the rocks, the strangeness of the marshes and beaches in the off-season. I wrote a book that professed my love for the place and ended with my saying that we would stay on Cape Cod forever. But that book brought strange results. Some professors in North Carolina read it, liked it, and offered me a job. Unemployed except for our writing and expecting our first child, we could hardly say no. And so by loving a place and saying so, I ended up almost 1,000 miles away.

The second irony has to do with the creek that I am paddling on this morning. Over the past three years this reedy place has become my backyard laboratory, gymnasium, and playground, the place where I bird-watch—ibises and bluebirds and herons and clapper rails and ospreys and recently even bald eagles. As I take in the whole of the place, the mist and the swaying grasses and reflective water, the word Cape-like pops into my mind. Perhaps that is nostalgia, but I know I am not the first to make this comparison. This creek, my creek now, is known locally as Hewletts, but to the greater American public it is better known as Dawson’s Creek, home of Dawson Leery, the protagonist of the long-running TV show about teenage romance. Farther downstream I will pass the house Dawson lived in, and there’s my second irony. Though the show was shot here, the geographic fiction was that it took place on Cape Cod.

I have not let these ironies get in the way of the essential package of commitment that I’ve tried to bring to this and the other places where I have lived: making an effort to learn the birds and the plants, the waters and the weather, and, yes, even the people. I am not about to say—and I’m certainly not going to write—that I will stay on Dawson’s Creek forever, since that would likely land me at some university in Wyoming or Iowa, but I am willing to be a dedicated lover, if not a spouse, to this place while I am here. Even in these ironic, crowded, and overheated times, I believe that Mr. Berry and Mr. Thoreau were on to something. We can fight for the world, but for each of us the world starts in our own neighborhood.

But there is a catch. Isn’t there always a catch these days?

Continuing to paddle, I hear a metallic roar. I pull my boat over by the first bridge, climb out into the muck, and drag it up onto a small grassy hill. Then, still wearing kayak shoes that look like ballet slippers, I walk up Pine Grove Road to pump station 40. The job of this station, and of number 34, its more notorious cousin a quarter-mile up the road, is to provide the energy to transport raw human waste from a nearby barrier island, Wrightsville Beach, and its environs about five miles down to the Southside sewage treatment plant, where it will be treated before it is dumped in the Cape Fear River. When I walk back to the boat and paddle under the bridge, I glide below the large pipes through which the sewage passes.

It takes a while to get to know the hidden workings of a place. For two years I paddled on these waters while maintaining the illusion of the pastoral. The sewage pipes form a secret network, unseen and unconsidered by most. But last summer the unseen revealed itself in dramatic fashion. In the early morning hours of July 1, lightning struck pump station 34, taking out both the station and its alarm system, and for seven and a half hours raw sewage spilled into the creek. In all, 442,000 gallons of untreated waste dumped into the water, creating algae blooms, spreading fecal bacteria, and trapping and killing fish in deoxygenated waters.

To know a place deeply is not always a pretty thing.

* * *

The next morning around 9:00, Hones and I push off from my neighbor Rory’s dock on the rising tide. Rory rides nearby in his skiff, our support boat, along with a cooler of food and beer, bundles of firewood, and, keeping with one of the themes of our trip, our Luggable Loo, the portable toilet seat that fits over a five-gallon bucket.

The creek is wider and more brackish here, as we approach the mouth. We paddle for a while, but before we enter the Intracoastal Waterway we decide to make a short pilgrimage to Dawson’s house. All coastal resort areas are built on illusion, but this one more than most. By paddling from the southern bank to the northern one, Hones and I are repeating a pop culture ritual. This is the section of water that Joey Potter, the character played by a young Katie Holmes, rowed across from her own trailer-like home to the more opulent home of Dawson. I notice that an egret, radiant white, sits at the end of the long dock that leads up to the grassy lawn and two-story white house that for six years was home to so much teenage angst and drama. The house is really quite beautiful, with dark green shutters and an ease about it, a kind of prettified, dressed-up version of my own home and yard, though I have no dock. A shaggy osprey nest rests in the nook of a live oak, the tallest tree on Dawson’s lawn. We salute the fictional teenagers with our paddles and head out to the waterway, passing near the spot where my daughter and I once saw an osprey flying overhead with an eel in its talons, a great silver strand hanging down.

This place teems with ospreys and oystercatchers and skimmers and herons of all stripes, and with ibises, which spend their days literally poking around, jabbing their crazy curved bills into the crab holes in the marsh muck. Today buffleheads, silly-looking ducks that fully earn their name, bob along the edge of the phragmites. The water is as flat and glassy as I’ve ever seen it, and looks as if you could crack it with a rock. We glide over ghostly oyster beds, which I can reach down and touch with my paddle. When we first moved here I was quick to claim a few for my own and bring them home to roast for dinner. No more. Last winter I went deep-sea fishing with my nephew and brother-in-law, and when we passed by this channel the captain said, unequivocally, “I’d never eat anything from these creeks.”

And that was before the summer’s spill.

With that spill my innocence was shed and I began to see there was a reason that scientists refer to Hewletts as “an urbanized tidal creek.” The ugly underside of Dawson’s shiny waters is the development of hundreds of houses along the creek itself, and the needs created by the unrestrained growth of Wrightsville Beach and the other relatively new communities, mine included. For any neighborhood near a river, ocean, or creek, polluted stormwater runoff is the most consistent worry, but this creek also faces threats specific to coastal communities that value growth above all else.

“Of course there is always a price to growth that most of us don’t see,” Larry Cahoon told me when I visited him recently in his office. Cahoon is a professor of marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where I also teach. The school catalog describes him as a biological oceanographer, and also as a limnologist, a delightful word I have just learned, meaning one who studies freshwater systems.

“Here it all started when the town of Wilmington decided to expand the sewer system in the 1980s to cover the county,” Cahoon explained. “They did this allegedly to protect the tidal creeks from the pollution of septic tanks, and that was partly right. Taken at face value, the decision to move away from septic tanks was environmentally responsible. But the real number-one reason to create a new sewer system was to support development—to support development in areas where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to develop.”

That development would lead to the city’s population topping 100,000 and an expansion of the sewer system that ended up costing $250 million, not the $50 million originally allotted.

“What the higher expenses forced them to do was to go as cheap as possible,” Cahoon continued. That meant cutting corners when it came to laying pipe, running the pump stations beyond their rated capacities to try to keep pace with population growth, and creating an overall system of water and waste that couldn’t handle the needs of the expanding number of homes and people. It also meant opting for cheaper cast-iron pipes over PVC, with disastrous results. Last summer’s was not the first major spill: on the July 4 weekend in 2005, a broken underground pipe went undetected and 4.5 million gallons of sewage dumped into Hewletts, causing major fish kills and closing the nearby waters and beaches to swimming during the summer’s busiest weekend.

You build sewer systems to anticipate growth and, in many coastal towns, to encourage it. But you eventually run up against limits—the age limits of the pipes, the limits of capacity.

“Eventually the system needs to be expanded,” Cahoon told me. “But the tendency with politicians is to put things off, since it will cost money. Sooner or later you have no choice. Or you keep putting things off and invite disaster.”

* * *

Hones and I pass four lazy days on Masonboro Island, making sure to do very little. We make fires at night, drink our beer, watch birds and dolphins, gather shells, grill steaks on the night of the winter solstice, and sleep to the rumble and slide of the waves—not, happily, to the music of sewage pump stations. One of the great pleasures of this place is the seven-minute walk from the quiet of the marsh side of the island to the crashing of the Atlantic side, and at this time of year you can often stand on your own desert island, with the eight-mile stretch of beach all to yourself.

This is a fragile spit of sand, shielding its backside marshes and creeks from the Atlantic and its storms, and it is so low-lying that many scientists wonder how much of it will still be here in 50 years. I don’t worry too much about that, not on this trip anyway, happy that it is at least here now. Stopping development on this island was the best thing Wilmington citizens ever did. In the 1980s developers offered to sell lots on Masonboro Island, but the community response was immediate and inspired. A group calling itself the Society for Masonboro Island launched a campaign to preserve it, and it eventually became part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve. That campaign was aided by the practical fact that federal flood insurance would not be available on an island that could be reached only by boat.

To the north, the island town of Wrightsville Beach is Masonboro’s twin, except there the sand is covered not with a few junipers, yucca, and prickly pear, but with million-dollar homes. As on any sandy-soiled island, the disposal of human waste presents challenges, and it is from Wrightsville that a good deal of the sewage that ended up in Hewletts Creek was pumped. During our days on the island, Hones and I learn our own private lesson about waste and barrier islands. Our Luggable Loo works like a charm, so much so that I consider offering my services as a spokesperson for the product when we get back. But other campers clearly have not lugged their loos. White flags of old toilet paper spot these dunes. Earlier visitors may have tried to bury their paper, but some things will not be easily covered up, especially given the local population of foxes and other small animals.

Is it wrong to take too large a lesson from some stray wastepaper? Perhaps, but I do it anyway. It occurs to me that in an overcrowded world we need to understand that everything eventually comes unburied. Including the invisible systems that we would rather not think about. We whistle along trying to ignore them, but they will not be ignored.

* * *

On our last morning, I stand on the island’s back side and stare out at the series of marshes that extend outward and west toward the creek and my home. If the human blundering and greed here are remarkable, the landscape itself is even more so. Tidal creeks and their salt marshes are almost miraculously resilient, in part because of the twice daily flushing of the tides. It’s because of this, and despite our shortsightedness, that we are not entirely doomed.

Before I left Larry Cahoon’s office, he suggested that I talk to his colleague Mike Mallin, a research professor who, along with his students, has been monitoring the way the marsh has responded to the many spills, including the 4.5-million-gallon sewage spill in 2005 and last summer’s still-massive though smaller one.

“When sewage spills into a marsh, you get an immediate increase in the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus,” Mallin said when I went by his office. That allows microbes to live longer, he explained—the kind that can cause illness and even death from eating contaminated shellfish. “But within a day or so of the Hewletts Creek spill, the levels really decreased,” he said. “That’s because the marsh was doing what it was supposed to. The plants and bacteria were taking up the nitrogen and phosphorus through a process called denitrification. We did see an algae bloom, but a lot of it was just absorbed by the marsh.”

As resilient as marshes are, Mallin’s team did discover something disturbing. “The problem comes when the fecal bacteria sink to the bottom, in the dark with plenty of nitrogen and phosphorus to feed on,” he said. “While the water itself might get cleaned up, the bacteria remain in the sediment, ready to be stirred up if a dog or a kid comes wading along.”

While no one with any sense would still be eating oysters from our creek, the fact is that tidal creeks are built to clean themselves if we leave them alone. They are even better if we give them a little help. In 2007 the Wilmington city planners, working with Mallin and other scientists, finished creating James E. L. Wade Park, a man-made wetland upstream from my house that filters out pollutants from stormwater runoff. The results have been fairly spectacular, with a 90 percent reduction of fecal coliform bacteria. The water flowing past my house is now significantly healthier and cleaner than it was just a few years back.

What is true for so many of our own backyards is true here. If we give them half a chance, they can prosper on their own. And if humans make the smallest effort not to impede, or even mildly aid them, natural systems can go about the business they have been tending to for millennia. The trouble comes when we deny that there is a problem, refusing to see things for what they are. And the problem is greatly exacerbated when politicians divorce themselves from science.

As populations and sea levels rise and salt corrodes and infiltrates pipes, sewage becomes an ever more pressing issue for coastal communities. But legislators here have not just denied but hidden the reports of their scientists on rising seas. (In the current Republican primary, all four senatorial candidates are climate deniers.) Simultaneously, the state legislature has slashed budgets for water quality programs and cut back severely on enforcement. All in all, a thumbs-up for polluters.

* * *

We have packed up the tents, aired out the sleeping bags, and taken on the impossible task of shaking sand out of all the nooks and crannies of each and every one of our belongings. But there is one ugly task left before we leave the island. The funny thing is, the anticipation is worse than the reality. Once again the Luggable Loo impresses, and the larger bag fits easily within the sealable and airtight smaller bag, which then fits neatly into the forward storage porthole of the kayak.

There are similar ugly tasks ahead here on Dawson’s Creek—tasks that need to be faced either now or later, tasks that we can put off and try to hide, but that one way or another will come uncovered. Coastal resort towns like this one rely on selling an image, and it is understandable that we prefer the gloss of beauty to the ugliness of fact. But the work ahead means seeing beyond the gloss. After all, to know a place means to know all of it. I, for one, am ready to get on with it, willing to face both the beauty and the ugliness of this place I now call home.

By David Gessner

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Dawson's Creek North Carolina Onearth.org Sewage Wilmington