Pigeon River Fund Marks 25 Years Supporting Water Quality

Lake Junaluska, Haywood County, photo by Michael Oppenheim.

(October 2020) The Pigeon River Fund (PRF) was established in 1994 when Carolina Power & Light (CP&L), subsequently Progress Energy and, now, Duke Energy, sought a new 40-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to continue to operate and maintain the Walters Hydroelectric Project on the Pigeon River. The license was granted, with conditions; most significantly, the creation of a grant program dedicated to water quality and the health of aquatic invertebrates and fish.

Since 1995, the PRF has been administered by CFWNC. The Fund has distributed nearly $8 million to nonprofits addressing water quality issues in the former CP&L service area encompassing Buncombe, Madison and Haywood counties, as well as the town of Fletcher in Henderson County.

Grants are awarded from the Fund twice per year with applications due in March and September. In a given year, $350,000 to $550,000 will be distributed. Senior Program Officer Tara Scholtz administers the program and vets applications before the eight-member Pigeon River Fund Advisory Committee, appointed by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, finalizes decisions.

Projects must meet at least one of the program’s four objectives: improving surface water quality, enhancing fish and wildlife management habitats, expanding public use and access to waterways, and increasing citizens’ awareness about their roles in protecting their resources. As long as appropriate projects exist, 50% of the Fund’s distributions must serve Haywood County, the county most deeply impacted by the location of the Walters Dam.

Over the past two and half decades, more than 350 grants have accomplished much. Thousands of linear feet on area streambanks have been restored or protected. Tons of litter have been pulled from rivers and streams through volunteer cleanups and “Trash Trouts” managed by Asheville GreenWorks (formerly Quality Forward). Points of access to waterways have been created at places such as Woodfin River Park and Blannahassett Island Trail in Marshall. Thousands of school children have studied aquatic and invertebrate life and related that knowledge to water quality.

From its earliest days, PRF has been a critical source of money for watershed action planning, as well as water conservation and wildlife protection projects that depend on science and data to guide decisions and accomplish long-term goals. Grant funds have trained volunteers to monitor water quality, supported GIS mapping to assess landslide risks, tested bacteria levels in the French Broad River, and more.

Some projects, like conservation easements that protect important headwaters or invaluable farmland, are expensive, long term and dependent on large grants from other sources. Often, these sources require a match and PRF has been able to provide the local dollars needed to secure these critical grants.

Haywood Waterways Association’s (HWA) mission to reduce nonpoint source pollution to protect and improve Haywood County’s waterways aligns closely with the goals of PRF. “Repairing a failing septic system provides an instant benefit for water quality, and if it is properly maintained, will last 30 years or more, giving tremendous return on PRF’s investment,” explained Eric Romaniszyn, HWA Executive Director. “Each repair prevents as much as 360 gallons of untreated wastewater from flushing into streams. That means that the 89 repairs funded by PRF in Haywood County since 2006 eliminated over 11 million gallons of raw sewage each year.” In addition, PRF has supported projects addressing straight piping and runoff and waste from trout and dairy farms.

Expanding public access and use of waterways and involving citizens in the protection of water resources remains a focus of Haywood Waterways. “Educating the public as well as engaging them directly in water quality improvement work are two of the primary tools HWA uses to accomplish our mission,” continued Romaniszyn. “We expect they will provide the best long-term protection of our waterways by helping our citizens make environmentally responsible behaviors become habit.”

Twenty-five years later, through collaboration and strong partnering nonprofits, the stated vision of continually improving streams and rivers that are valued and protected for water quality, aquatic habitat, recreational and educational opportunities continues to guide the work of the Fund and to economically and environmentally benefit the entire region.