THE ROANOKE RIVER
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The Roanoke River is one of five large rivers in the southeast that flow from the foothills of the Appalachians to the coast. A major artery in northeast North Carolina, the river is an arm of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary. Its basin contains some of the largest bottomland forests in the region.
Like other rivers, the Roanoke has felt the effects of lumbering, agriculture and urbanization. Recently, efforts to preserve the integrity of the natural system have been successful. Since the health of the Roanoke River is vital to the well-being of the estuary, the challenge now is to continue these efforts.
“River of Death” the Indians called it, because of the Roanoke's tendency to flood during the spring. More properly, the Roanoke is a giver of life. Its silt-laden floodwaters lay a blanket of rich alluvial soil over the forest floor, while flooded bottomlands give to the river an incredible tonnage of detritus organic matter, such as decayed leaves. When gnawed and shredded by river creatures, detritus becomes a keystone of nutrition for life in the river.
The Roanoke River rises in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and reaches the Albemarle Sound some 400 miles later. With its six-billion-gallon average daily flow, the Roanoke carries more water than any other river in North Carolina and contributes over half the fresh water supply to Albemarle Sound.
All told, the river and its tributaries drain almost 10,000 square miles of land. About 3,500 of these are located below the Fall Line, the interface between Piedmont hills and Coastal Plain. Above the Fall Line, the narrow, hustling river cuts through rocky channels and 75-foot-high bluffs flamboyant with wildflowers each spring. As it meanders through flat coastal lands, however, its floodplain can be as much as five miles wide, with vast roadless swamps of baldcypress and tupelo-gum.
Wilderness bottomlands are actually a washboard of ridges and sloughs created by the constantly changing river. Sloughs (low areas, pronounced slews are ancient river channels; ridges are natural levees formed during floods.
An incredible diversity of plant and animal life flourishes here<197>over 200 species of birds alone. Dense populations of white-tailed deer and wild turkey thrive. At least six heronries dot the wetlands. During the fall over 500 migrating hawks have been observed on a single day.
Less than a century after explorer Ralph Lane encountered swift currents and hostile Indians in 1586, early settlers were attracted by rich alluvial soil. Lumberjacks, aptly named swampers, logged bottomlands. Folks with royal grants created small farms, and slave labor built dikes to hold back floods. Plantations, regarded by many as the best farms in the east, produced fine crops of cotton, corn and peanuts. Settlements like Plymouth and Williamston became leading ports and centers for entertainment as well when showboats arrived. It was not unusual for fifty or more ships to be docked at town wharves, loading shingles, naval stores and barrel staves. Other settlements, like Dymond City, Hog Town and Dalys Hill, now forgotten ghosts of the past, once flourished along a busy river. When the river's rapids at the Fall Line were conquered first by canal, then by rail, the Roanoke proved to be a vital link between the interior and the coast.
This prosperity came to a halt during the Civil War, when Union troops cut a wide swath through northeast North Car-olina and captured Plymouth in 1862. Hidden away in a Halifax cornfield, however, was the Albemarle, a 152-foot armored ram covered with a two-inch iron plate. During high water, the ram coasted over chains laid across the river and recaptured Plymouth. The town remained in southern hands until 1864, when a daring Unionist attached a torpedo to the ram and destroyed it.
Despite serious damage to the city during the war, Plymouth became one of the busiest ports in the state, shipping naval stores and lumber. Nearby, Williamston became a port for craft running between the coast and the interior. As late as 1923, three steamship lines served the river, until the opening of a bridge across the Roanoke encouraged transportation by road.
MAN AND THE RIVER
Years past on an April weekend the Roanoke would teem with herring, and fishermen would crowd its banks. Massive spawning runs of striped bass, herring, shad and white perch were the backbone for thriving commercial and recreational fisheries.
Fishermen at Jamesville set seines half a mile long to catch as many as 20,000 herring at a time. Long drift nets and skim nets resembling large ladles were used, too. Near Hamilton and Williamston waters flowed rapidly enough to operate unattended fishing machines strange-looking contraptions that were actually skim nets with paddles powered by water flow. At times they sank under the weight of colossal catches.
Unfortunately, fishing is not as good as it once was. Commercial catches of striped bass and herring have declined by more than half. Fishing advisories because of dioxin released during paper production exist on the lower Roanoke. Acres of bottomlands have been drained and converted to farms or tree plantations that may extend to river banks and are clear-cut when harvested. The lower Roanoke suffers from low dissolved oxygen levels caused by industrial discharge into poorly oxygenated swamp waters. Major dischargers of wastewater into the river are pulp and paper companies, towns, prisons, and industry. Mining, road-building, crop irrigation, and industrial processes that use large amounts of water also affect the river.
Clearing land increases runoff of sediment and reduces detritus available to the river. It can also cause severe flooding downstream. In the wake of record-breaking floods in 1940 that devastated the area's farm economy, a string of dams was constructed upriver to control flooding and produce electric power. Today, lakes created by these impoundments are popular recreation areas.
But releases from reservoirs have produced unnatural water flows that have been linked to declines in hardwood reproduction, disruptions in turkey nesting and calamitous drops in the Roanoke's striped bass
Reproduction of striped bass is keyed to natural rhythms of river currents and food supply. Proper flows are needed to promote their spawning more than a hundred miles upriver near Weldon, and to carry fish larvae to the river mouth for feeding. One hopeful sign: during 1988, after many years of poor spawning,
water released from reservoirs was controlled to closely resemble natural flows, and spawning was successful.
Worried by alarming losses of forested wetlands and declining wildlife populations in the Southeast, Congress has identified the Roanoke River as a national priority under the Emergency Wetlands Resources Act.
In 1989 a giant step was taken to preserve the river's wilderness when the 33,000-acre Roanoke River National Wildife Refuge was born. The Refuge represents almost ten years of cooperative effort by The Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife Service, NC Wildlife Commission, and the Gov-ernor. Protection of the rich bottomlands involved a complex strategy of donation, bargain sale<N>and land swapping. Acquisition of additional acreage is necded to complete the refuge.
Future protection of the river will depend on how we choose to use the land. Intense use of bottomlands is detrimental to life in the floodplain, but hunting, fishing, and selective cutting of timber are activities that will sustain bottomlands. Wise management of our environment will restore the health of the Roanoke River and the estuary it nourishes. But the well-being of the river will ultimately depend on people who are willing to become informed, make their voices heard, and alter their way of living to protect our valuable resources.