Meet the Haw Riverkeeper, guardian of the river

Most rivers have an assigned watchdog, often called a riverkeeper. Meet Emily Sutton, the Haw River's newest riverkeeper.

Riverkeepers are guardians of water quality

SAXAPAHAW, N.C. —“I love the Haw, more than all the other rivers in the Piedmont,” said Emily Sutton. Sutton is the newly-appointed Haw Riverkeeper. She’s the river’s main watchdog, a non-regulatory position charged with protecting the watershed. Sutton oversees the Haw River’s water quality, relying on a network of volunteers and projects spanning decades.

“It’s a lot of responsibility, and I feel like I have six different major projects happening all at once,” she said. “But I’m not doing it alone. I have so many volunteers and I depend on them”

Rivers and bodies of water across the globe often have a point-person or non-profit dedicated to protecting water quality. The Haw Riverkeeper is part of the Haw River Assembly, a non-profit founded in 1982. Sutton joined the Haw River Assembly in 2016 as a volunteer coordinator before becoming the riverkeeper last year.

The Haw River's Legacy of Pollution

Water quality in the Haw River has improved since it’s low point during the Industrial Revolution. Textile industries all along the river dumped their waste water directly into the river, making the river run whatever color was being used to dye fabric in the textile mills.

“It’s still a stigma today that the Haw River is dirty and you shouldn’t swim in it,” said Sutton.

Today, the Haw River’s problems are often harder to track. Sutton and her team monitor streams throughout the watershed for contaminants, sediment pollution and trash.

“The Department of Water Quality used to do that work,” said Sutton. “But their funding has been cut so drastically that they really rely on our groups for red flags.”

One of Sutton’s concerns is emerging contaminants, or chemicals that haven’t been around long enough to know the long-term effects on human and ecosystem health. Contaminants trickle in with surface water run-off from industrial sites or are directly discharged by industries and waste-water treatment plants.

“A lot of these contaminants we find in the Haw aren’t regulated,” said Sutton. “So there’s no requirement for companies and treatment plants to test for them or remove them.”

The Haw Feeds Into Jordon Lake

The Haw’s watershed crosses through 10 counties in the Piedmont and is fed by 920 miles of stream. The river flows directly into Jordan Lake, a major drinking water reservoir for a million people over three counties. Sutton said it’s been a challenge getting stakeholders to see the watershed as a whole.

“Some of the problems we see in Jordan Lake are the same problems we have in the Haw,” said Sutton. “They can’t be teased apart, they’re the same river.”

Data Collection with Kids

Sutton leads stream water quality trainings and sometimes most of the participants are kids. Sutton says she has to adjust the training when this happens and make it more fun for the kids, even though they’re collecting important data on long-term trends in stream health.

“The kids aren’t just doing it for fun,” said Sutton. “This is data that no one else is collecting.”

The kids test the stream’s pH using a simple chemistry kit, look for trash or signs of erosion and collect macro-invertebrates that indicate chemical pollutants. If the stream doesn’t have critters that are sensitive the pollution, it’s a sign that the stream isn’t healthy.

“I love working with kids,” said Sutton. “It’s not the biggest part of my job but it’s the part I have to do for my heart.”