In Celebration of the Haw River Assembly: 40 Years of Protecting the Haw

Who is the Haw River Assembly?

If you fish, swim, paddle, or otherwise appreciate the Haw River and Jordan Lake, then you have the Haw River Assembly (HRA) to thank. While you may not know them, the HRA has been advocating for the Haw since 1982, and they are now celebrating their 40th anniversary.

The Haw River Assembly is a 501(c)(3) non-profit citizens’ group whose mission is “to restore and protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake, and to build a watershed community that shares this vision.”

Take a few minutes to get to know the good people fighting an often unseen, but always important, fight for our natural resources.

What are some notable accomplishments of the HRA?

We cannot do justice to 40 years’ worth of environmental advocacy work, but a quick summary would include their continued political pushback against pollution and unsustainable development in the Haw River watershed as well as their commitment to environmental and social justice. The HRA not only advocates for endangered communities but also strives to represent all peoples affected by environmental issues.

Since their inception, the HRA has also promoted environmental education with a particular focus on educating young people to appreciate local ecology. These efforts often weave local volunteers into educational and conservationist roles, giving them the tools to become environmental advocates in their communities.

Overall, the areas of environmental conservation, education, and advocacy are woven into their organizational mission:

  • Promote environmental education, conservation and pollution prevention;
  • Speak as a voice for the river in the public arena;
  • Put into peoples’ hands the tools and the knowledge they need to be effective guardians of the river.

How does the HRA “promote environmental education, conservation and pollution prevention?”

Environmental education is a keystone of preservation, and in 1990, the HRA established its first Haw River Learning Celebration, which introduced over 2000 schoolchildren to river ecology and later included community partnerships with Alamance Community College and the Summit Conference Center.

Paperhand Puppet Intervention participating in the Learning Celebration.

In 2008, HRA began a grant-funded 8th-grade Stream Investigation program that brought students to streams near their schools to explore the ecosystem and causes of pollution.

Through all their outreach efforts, the HRA has attained a significant educational footprint. By its 30th anniversary, the Learning Celebration program alone had reached over 48,000 fourth-graders from schools in the watershed.

How does the HRA “speak as a voice for the river in the public arena?”

Some of their most notable accomplishments are political and require years of work to come to fruition. While not an exhaustive list, some examples of political action include the following:

  • Publishing a scientific study that led to making clean water recommendations to the NC General Assembly. (1985)
  • Working with local citizens to stop re-zoning around Lake Jeanette and to stop a sewage discharge at the Haw headwaters near Oak Ridge. (1991)
  • Helping to save the old Bynum Bridge from destruction and to preserve the headwater springs of the Haw in Forsyth County. (1998)
  • Urging strong rules for Jordan Lake and for passage of rules to control polluted runoff. These rules were made law in August 2009, and set precedents in their effort to combat existing pollution. (2004-2009)
  • Helping win passage at General Assembly of “Drinking Water Reservoir Protection Act” (2005)
  • After threatening a lawsuit (represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center), the HRA got the City of Burlington to agree to fix and replace mechanisms that had led to a massive 3.5-million-gallon raw sewage spill into the Haw River from Burlington’s aging sewer system, the third significant spill in just one month. As a result, the City of Burlington agreed to fix and replace sewer pipes, include their grease reduction program, and improve their public notification system. (2014)
  • Opposing the NC legislature’s proposal to use algaecides to poison algae in Jordan Lake, a large drinking water reservoir. State agencies and environmental groups succeeded in urging the Army Corps of Engineers to reject this proposal.
  • Working with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the HRA convinced the City of Burlington to investigate the exact sources of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane in their wastewater and to take steps to stop this pollution from entering the Haw River.

How does the HRA “put into peoples’ hands the tools and the knowledge they need to be effective guardians of the river?”

In many of their efforts, the HRA partners with community-based organizations who witness or are victims of environmental injustices. Some of these communities are comprised of vulnerable populations who lack traditional resources to fight pollution and other environmental dangers.

In 2005, HRA became a partner for the EPA Environmental Justice grant to the Mebane-based West End Revitalization Association, fighting for “Rights to Basic Amenities,” including clean water.

In 2012, HRA joined Greensboro community activists to stop the re-opening of the White Street Landfill, which was located in a primarily Black neighborhood. The city of Greensboro finally agreed to keep the landfill closed and to use it for other purposes.

Most recently, the HRA joined with Burlington and Caswell County communities that are fighting environmental injustice; both communities have majority Black, Indigenous, and Latino populations. In Burlington, a former Army missile plant is polluting surface and groundwater, and in Caswell County, a proposed asphalt and batch concrete plant would create air pollution endanger a tributary of the Haw River.

How Does the HRA support recreation along the Haw?

In 1989, the HRA suggested to state officials that they develop a state park along the river, and in 2003, this plan manifested as Haw River State Park. In 2004, they helped Swepsonville build a river park, as well as working with Triangle Land Conservancy to help North Carolina buy 900 acres of Duke University forest land in Chatham County and establish Lower Haw River State Natural Area.

Not only do they help establish parks, the HRA continues to fight for their preservation and expansion. In 2007, when Haw River State Park was threatened by a proposal to build a large golf course development on adjacent land, the HRA helped fight to get the proposal denied. Happily, this defeat resulted in the park acquiring new land for trails through their 693-acre Iron Ore Belt Access.

To encourage safe swim habits, the HRA started a Swim Guide program in 2019, which monitors E-coli levels at swimming spots along the Haw River and at Jordan Lake.

Want to Get Involved with Haw River Assembly?

One of the best ways to show your appreciation for the HRA and for the natural world is to get involved in conservation and educational efforts. Volunteer roles allow you to contribute to your community while developing your own local knowledge and advocacy skills.

If you’d like to get involved with the HRA, please check their website for volunteer opportunities.