Our Town Spotlight: Upper Neuse Riverkeeper

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr on the edge of the Neuse River

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr on the edge of the Neuse River

by Jessie Ammons

photograph by Ray Black III

There is no murky water under the bridge for Matthew Starr. “My goal is fishable, swimmable, drinkable water, which means my goal is to stop pollution from entering our surface water.” Starr is the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, a role with the nonprofit Sound Rivers that he describes as “part investigator, part journalist, part enforcement. I wear a bunch of different hats, but at the end of the day it’s all about the voice for the river. I’m the voice for the river, and for the people and the environment in and around the river basin.”

Starr grew up in northwest Raleigh and has early memories of playing in the creek behind his home. “I can remember my mom taking me out in summer rain storms to Lake Anne just off of Highway 70,” he says. “Playing as a kid fostered my awareness of public bodies of water. I’ve always been passionate about water.” After college, he entered the N.C. Army National Guard; when he returned from deployment in Iraq, he wanted to find a job with a purpose. He took an internship with the Neuse River Foundation – an organization that’s since become Sound Rivers, a five-person team focused on preserving the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico River watersheds – and never turned back. “I realized I wanted to be the voice of change, not just the voice of ‘Let’s do this because someone’s paying us to do it.’ I’d do this job for free, I feel so strongly about it.”

What Starr feels most strongly about is reducing and ultimately eliminating water pollution. His priority is the northern part of the 248-mile-long Neuse River, a stretch that begins in Raleigh at Falls Lake, Raleigh’s main source of drinking water, and extends up to the Leonir-Wayne county line. There’s also the surrounding tributary creeks and streams, about 3,000 square miles of total river basin. Any given day for Starr might include paddling around coal ash ponds, responding to tips about pollution, or walking the shore of a tributary, where he’ll collect water samples and document observations. He turns what he sees into data, which he uses to collaborate with researchers and his Sound Rivers colleagues to advocate for environmental reform. This year, for example, he’s been heavily involved in seeking coal ash cleanup commitments from Duke Energy, a movement that garnered national attention during the summer. “Everything we do has to get to the public,” Starr explains. “It’s not my water; it belongs to North Carolinians. They have to know about the issues. They have to know what’s going on with their body of water, and they have to be aware of the solutions and how they can help.”

Starr backs out of his activistic urgency to reiterate the importance of nonpartisan small-scale reform, too. “This can be as simple as, when you’re walking, pick up trash. Because when it rains, it’s going to go into a storm drain or a local creek. It’s going to come back to you,” he says. Falls Lake, he points out, is Raleigh’s primary drinking water source.

His advice resonated during Hurricane Matthew in October. The storm set flood records, causing Starr and his colleagues to “stop everything and focus on that. Documentation is crucial.” They paid close attention to where pollution increased during floods and also how the water flowed when it hit such depths.

Now that water levels have subsided, Starr says the real work begins. “During the actual record-breaking flood, you’re not going to stop anything. Now, though, we can start the conversation. We’re seeing these larger storm events more frequently. How should that shift how we approach our floodplains? What do we need to move out of the floodway?”

He says community awareness of shared waterways is the key to success, both in times of crisis and everyday, on a large-scale level and on a practical daily basis. “People that drive over the same bridge everyday, or that regularly walk past the same stream on the greenway – they know that body of water. If it doesn’t look right? If it doesn’t smell right? Call me. My job is to listen to you and figure out what your observation means for the long term.”

Learn more at soundrivers.org