Sound Rivers: Keepers of the Neuse River
Progress is the reason American Rivers named the Neuse River its 2022 River of the Year — progress since the passage of the Clean Water Act 50 years ago and progress that is yet to come. None of it could be accomplished without the dedication and determination of the communities along the Neuse’s banks. Leading the movement to protect the Neuse and its sister river, the Tar-Pamlico, is nonprofit Sound Rivers, with a mission to guard the health of these two critical watersheds.
Sound Rivers’ Neuse and Pamlico-Tar Riverkeepers work with concerned citizens and state and federal agencies to monitor, protect and restore the two river basins. Founded in 2015 with the merger of two of North Carolina’s oldest grassroots conservation organizations, Sound Rivers combined the deep history of advocacy of the Neuse River Foundation, established in 1980, with the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, established in 1981, to form an environmental powerhouse. Today, Sound Rivers celebrates more than 40 years of advocacy and action on behalf of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers and the communities that rely on them.
This is no small job. The two river basins cover nearly one-quarter of North Carolina and provide drinking water to most of their residents. Together, they contain unique habitats including bald cypress swamp, mixed oak, and pine forest, and salty estuary, and are home to a huge array of plant and animal species, including the threatened Neuse waterdog, the Tar River spiny mussel, and the Carolina Madtom — each of which can only be found in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds. The rivers are the lifeblood of outdoor recreation, providing world-class opportunities for fishing, kayaking, birdwatching and simply soaking in the natural beauty of North Carolina’s Piedmont and Coastal Plain. To many, the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers are what make southeastern North Carolina home.
Sound River’s long history of work protecting the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds is a testament to its grit as an organization. Over the years, they have faced off against powerful opponents and netted some unlikely victories in defense of water quality and river-reliant communities. In its 40-year history, Sound Rivers has gone head-to-head with big mining proposals to dump toxins in the water, shined a light on waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) polluting waterways, advocated to stop the leveling of riverside forests, and worked tirelessly to reduce pollution from wastewater treatment plants and big industry.
Sound Rivers’ core belief is that all people should have access to and enjoyment of natural resources, as well as a powerful voice in decisions that may affect their environment and health. While we have come a long way since the early days of dumping toxins directly into the Neuse, many communities along the river still bear the burdens of pollution, outdated infrastructure, and flooding. For Sound Rivers, challenging environmental injustice is a critical part of watershed advocacy — addressing these issues in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds must start in their most vulnerable communities. Working hand-in-hand with community members most impacted by pollution, Sound Rivers aims to kick polluters out of underserved communities and ensure watershed benefits can be shared by everyone.
Sound Rivers’ work is not limited to the reactive — the organization also does plenty of proactive work. Its Campus Stormwater Program partners with local schools and universities to assess campuses and implement green stormwater infrastructure to prevent polluted runoff from pouring off buildings and parking lots, straight into waterways. Sound Rivers also seeks grants to fund and create watershed restoration plans with local municipalities and install trash-collecting devices to passively collect trash flowing downstream in critical urban waterways. Encouraging public enjoyment of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico waterways is another part of this work: Sound Rivers participates in Swim Guide, an international program, sampling popular recreational spots and publishing data-driven, weekly swim advisories each summer. In all, Sound Rivers is a champion for the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds, a watchdog dedicated to calling out polluters, and a caretaker working tirelessly in loving service to its charges.
While Sound Rivers recently marked its 40th anniversary, the story of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers is still being written. In the face of increasing threats from a changing climate, Sound Rivers continues to work hand-in-hand with communities to improve water quality and safeguard these rivers from the challenges ahead. Much has been accomplished over the years, but there is much more work to be done. Looking ahead, Sound Rivers intends to write 40 more years of progress into the next chapter of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers — chapters of hope for generations to come. Achieving its goals requires collective effort. All are welcome to join the fight for clean water.
For more information, visit soundrivers.org.