Any amount of man-made litter or trash in Lake James or its watershed is too much, given that unlike many other environmental threats, this is one threat that is easily preventable.
Lake James is being overwhelmed with trash, especially on the western (McDowell) side where two thirds of its total water volume enters the lake. This problem is all the more shocking given that Lake James is a “headwaters lake” and that it drains a mostly rural area.
Lake James’ trash problem has not gone unnoticed by the general public. In a survey published earlier this year by Lake James Environmental Association about the condition of the lake, there was a marked difference between respondents from McDowell versus Burke Counties. While 51% of Burke respondents rated Lake James’ water quality as excellent, only 29% of McDowell residents said the same. Some reasoning for the difference related to the amount of trash in the water on the McDowell side. See the results of the entire survey here.
It is estimated that 80% of Lake James’ trash problems stem from the flushing effect that periodic rain events have on trash that has illegally accumulated on roadbeds and streambanks, or from campsites and zoning violations located in flood zones.
Beginning in 2017, the State of NC contributed to the roadside trash problem by eliminating roadside pickup by prisoners and replacing it with a more costly vendor pickup arrangement. On a statewide basis, roadside coverage is now only 20% of what it was only a few years ago. The practical impact of this on the accumulation of roadside trash in McDowell and Burke counties is highly evident, and not effectively offset by local measures in response to changes made at the state level.
The seriousness of the trash problem is underestimated and/or mostly being taken for granted. Most of the general public, unless boating immediately after a heavy rain, rarely sees the trash problem because the trash quickly settles back in remote coves and/or along rugged shorelines where it continues to accumulate. In the long run, public health may be compromised.
No concerted effort has been made yet to fully understand the problem of trash and trash accumulation in the lake much less make a comprehensive plan to do something about it.
Volunteer annual lake cleanups are helpful but much too limited, treat only the symptom, and don’t get at the root cause or actively deal with prevention. Trash continues to accumulate and plastic trash in particular can last hundreds of years before it biodegrades.
Lake James runs the risk of not only having its reputation as the “cleanest lake in the Catawba chain” reversed, but longer term, its property tax base could suffer, along with the future economic prospects of the entire region.
With decreased funding at both the federal and state level and no single authority exclusively dedicated to watching over water quality aspects of the lake and its watershed, local governments must assume a leadership role in solving this problem. Ultimately, it is the citizens that must choose what kind of world they want to live in and leave to the next generation. It will be pressure from those citizens and local watershed organizations that forces the government to address the issue.