I have a great job: I sell the environment.
Not literally, of course. I don’t auction off clean water or market old-growth forests. As a real-estate agent, however, I owe my success to the local environment, because that’s why people move to Western North Carolina.
This became abundantly clear to me recently when I accompanied French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of RiverLink on a one-week journey down the Pigeon River. Along with hundreds of other streams, the Pigeon is part of the French Broad watershed that Carson works hard to protect.
We made this trip to raise awareness about the environmental issues and recreational opportunities connected with the river, as well as to monitor the health of this precious natural resource. Along the way, we investigated sources of pollution, paddled with the public, and taught high-school students about water quality.
I learned quite a bit about water quality myself. One man who’s lived on the river his entire life described how it used to be “black as tar,” with a layer of foam coating the surface like the suds on a beer. He told us about throwing his dogs in the water to rid them of fleas and mange. He also bemoaned the lack of fishing and wildlife back in the old days.
Ironically, this man worked for the company responsible for most of this pollution—the Canton paper mill—for 34 years. Happily, a modernization effort at the plant in the mid-‘90s substantially reduced the pollution. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but the much-maligned “Dirty Bird” has the potential to become a success story.
Today, the Pigeon River teems with wildlife, from ospreys and peregrine falcons to beavers and soft-shell turtles. Smallmouth bass and pan fish eagerly took our bait throughout the trip. The water still has a slightly darkish tint, but it’s nowhere near black tar.
And the land around the river is downright beautiful. Mature forests line the banks; mountains and tall rock bluffs tower overhead. Even in the sections paralleling Interstate 40, the constant splash of rapids and riffles drowns out the traffic sound.
No wonder so many people want to live along this wonderful amenity and its tributaries.
Unfortunately, our eagerness to live amid nature may be threatening the Pigeon’s recent successes. After years of improvement, the amount of “impaired” or “failing” streams within the Pigeon River watershed has increased by 60 percent in the last two years, leaving these streams no longer safe for swimming. This increase can be attributed to polluted storm-water runoff carrying harmful pollutants such as bacteria, oil and gas, pesticides, fertilizers and our No. 1 polluter: sediment.
Sediment? Isn’t that just a fancy word for dirt? And what’s so harmful about dirt?
Many people don’t know that sediment smothers fish eggs and the tiny aquatic wildlife that fish eat. This, in turn, sets off a negative reaction that ripples through the food chain. Sediment also increases the cost of treating drinking water, and over time, it fills in lakes and ponds. Besides—let’s be honest—brown water just doesn’t look as pretty as clear water does.
When we canoed down the Pigeon, we spotted several eroded riverbanks and plumes of muddy water near recent developments. As a real-estate agent, I am conscious of the fact that development is the No. 1 cause of sediment in the French Broad watershed. I believe, however, that we can stop harming the beauty that brings people to these mountains while accommodating their need for housing.
To begin with, developers and builders should implement and maintain erosion-control measures. Many already do, but not all of them, and some don’t maintain their erosion-control systems well enough. Residents should monitor construction sites and report potential violations—and our government should enforce those erosion laws.
Next, municipalities should require a minimum 50-foot vegetative buffer on all streams. This would allow storm water to be filtered by vegetated areas before entering a waterway. Some folks argue that a mandated buffer will increase the cost of housing. I will counter that the cost of destroying our precious waterways far outweighs any additional costs to the consumer. I think most people are on my side.
As a real-estate agent, I believe we have to keep our water clean—after all, my livelihood depends on it.
[Certified ECO Realtor Mark Vanderhoff works at Coldwell Banker Kasey & Associates. An avid outdoorsman, he volunteers with RiverLink.]