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The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation lends visibility—and sound—to environmental issues

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The "Save the Neuse" tagline for the Sweetwater Brewing-sponsored Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation benefit this weekend relies on dramatic immediacy, implying a critical moment of activism that a reasonable reader might call exaggerated. While the river has its share of problems, it's been getting better; in the '90s, after all, major fish kills and the mysterious Pfiesteria microorganism put the waterway in national news.

Jim Dempsey, of the Washington, D.C., rock band The Moderate, remembers those scares. He grew up on Crabtree Creek, a tributary of the Neuse. He played in the creek as a kid, fishing with cheddar cheese bait on homemade rods of stick and string. So when his band was approached by Sweetwater to do the show, he says they quickly agreed, crisis or no. "I've been in D.C. too long," says Dempsey, who views his Raleigh shows—mostly at The Pour House—as homecomings.

Raleigh-based Alissa Bierma is one of two Riverkeepers for the Neuse. Her beat starts in Goldsboro and moves upstream to the river's headwaters of the Flat and Eno rivers near Hillsborough. Despite the benefit serving as a rally of sorts for the river, Bierma speaks about the Neuse in reserved, realistic terms.

"We basically have an epidemic of obese waterways in this area," she says, citing an excess of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. An overabundance can stimulate algae blooms. When the algae die and decay, they suck the oxygen from the water. Fish suffocate, going belly-up on the surface. Preventing this sort of chemical imbalance, says Bierma, involves watchdog-style advocacy. There are 140 permitted sources of such compounds within the basin, she says, each with set limits on what it can put in the river.

"It's a self-monitoring situation," she says. "So the polluters are required basically to report on themselves."

It's been more than eight years since Bierma's predecessor, Dean Naujoks, brought one such problem to media attention. Raleigh's Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) had been overapplying sludge—microorganisms used to "bake out" pathogens in wastewater—to its fields. Contaminated groundwater seeped into the river. Major improvements were soon made. "They probably would not have made those changes if we hadn't given them so much guff in the first place," Bierma says.

Since 2003, when T.J. Lynch started as WWTP superintendent, the plant's handling of this "difficult biosolid" has improved dramatically, with eight consecutive years of permit compliance. Lynch can't give the Riverkeepers full credit for the $80 million spent on plant upgrades. "A lot of those improvements were already planned when that stuff happened," he says, insisting the media attention accelerated the upgrades without necessitating them. Naujoks could have handled the situation differently, he says. "I think there are situations that call for [whistle-blowing], but I think that if he had established a working relationship with the City of Raleigh Public Utilities Director, he'd have accomplished the same goal. But he would have done it maybe without selling as many newspapers."

When Lynch started his job, his first call was to Naujoks. They met for lunch (he did the same with Bierma when she started) and "became people on the same side of the river," he says. Their cooperation has led to changes in policy without the need for a media firestorm. Many homeowners associations prohibit rain barrels, for instance; but the Riverkeepers worked for a Raleigh ordinance that allowed cisterns, with which people can use rainwater to flush their toilets.

Education remains a major part of the foundation, but the environmental advocacy arm—the Riverkeepers themselves—lend the organization essential visibility. "They have the ability to attract media attention," says Lynch. "That's their strength."

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