This year marks the 25th anniversary of a vision. In early 1982, paddle enthusiasts Lynn Featherstone and Chuck Brady joined forces with environmental attorney John Runkle to craft an innovative nonprofit organization designed to preserve and protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake. Christened the Haw River Assembly, the organization’s charter meeting in February of that year drew an impressive turnout of more than 100 citizens from in and around Chatham County, eager to join the effort. Today, HRA is still going strong, now boasting more than 1,500 active members and volunteers.

Founder Featherstone, “canoe czar” of the HRA, is still going strong as well. He serves on the board of directors, leads canoe trips and volunteers for its annual Learning Celebration, a three-week traveling education program that snakes along the entire 100-mile length of the Haw, bringing hands-on environmental learning opportunities to fourth grade students in the six counties along the way.

HRA has weathered its share of challenges and changes over the past 25 years, but a fresh, inspired glow still flashes across Featherstone’s face as he looks back on his experiences.

“I’ve loved watching the changing culture of the Haw River,” he says. “HRA has impacted the community and has changed people’s ways of thinking so much. We’ve had an impact on this whole area, and we’ve instilled a respect for what we love. That can’t be ignored.”

The Learning Celebration is a favorite program of many HRA members. Founded in 1990 by artist-storyteller Louise Kessel, it has touched the lives of more than 28,000 students and 400 volunteers to date. Each fall, artists and musicians weave their craft into a scientific curriculum against a pristine natural backdrop, and the effect, says steering committee Chairwoman Martha Pentecost, is “indescribable.”

The Learning Celebration is put together on a tight budget, so volunteer efforts are essential.

“Teachers approach me and marvel that nobody is getting paid,” Pentecost says. “That never even occurs to me! We all work so hard, but it just never feels like work…. I do it totally selfishly. It’s fun every minute.”

Featherstone recalls the first week of the celebration in 1990. Out of mere curiosity, he considered what each volunteer did in his or her professional life, and he then calculated the hours they had put in for HRA.

“In just that one week, I came up with a sum of about $78,000 in free labor,” he says. “I call that a donation.”

Other programs include land conservation efforts and a Stream Stewardship project. Stream Stewards educate citizens about preserving the creeks in their own backyards. A recent grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources will allow the stewards to conduct a comprehensive three-year study of Dry Creek and Pokeberry Creek, two Haw River tributaries. This study, called the Two Streams Project, will establish a water-quality baseline to be used for comparison over time as large development projects are launched in surrounding areas.

The River Watch Project, another major initiative of HRA, is an intensive water-monitoring effort involving about 50 teams of trained volunteers who keep track of water quality at various locations throughout the year. Observations are scheduled around four seasonal “snapshots” and are used to determine the source, sort and scope of pollution.

River Watch Coordinator Cynthia Crossen emphasizes the importance of this hands-on community involvement.

“It’s essential that there are public lands along the Haw so people can actually get to the water and establish a bond with it,” she says. “We want to get everyone down to the river.”

In this effort to offer something for everyone, HRA puts on several one-day events throughout the year to encourage casual community involvement. One such event is the Clean-Up-a-Thon held each March, which provides a commitment-free opportunity for curious newbies and weathered veterans alike. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, neighborhood teams, military groups and others gather up and down the Haw for an afternoon of cleaning and community-building, and a prize is awarded at the day’s end for the team pulling the craziest item out of the river. This year’s winners fished out a 4-foot-tall plastic cactus.

HRA President Debbie Tunnell says events like these, and the avenue they provide toward further involvement and membership, are some of the things she loves most about the Assembly. Members come in through any of several different channels, Tunnell says, but most of them end up connected to every aspect of HRA. She likens each new volunteer to a creek flowing into a larger river.

“People see that they’re not alone in their passion,” she says. “They mingle with like minds, and then they’re strengthened to step forward. I love watching that happen. It provides focus and unity … all these different communities find each other, and then they find the river.”

The Assembly’s accomplishments are not going unnoticed. Last year, Gov. Mike Easley appointed HRA Executive Director Elaine Chiosso to serve on the N.C. Sedimentation Control Commission, an organization focused on implementing the N.C. Pollution Control Act of 1973. Chiosso received further recognition at HRA’s 25th annual membership meeting on Nov. 4, when keynote speaker Bill Ross, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, praised her leadership and achievements.

Despite these successes, however, the environmental conservation battle is far from won. According to Chiosso, one of the biggest issues presently facing HRA involves the passage of stronger rules to protect Jordan Lake. HRA sees current state regulations to be far too lenient, and its members are fighting opposition from upriver governments that do not feel they should have to pay to clean up the lake.

“It’s been very discouraging not to see a bigger vision, a regional vision, of how important it is to protect this water,” Chiosso says. “I’ve been fighting for five years trying to convince stakeholders, whose interests are more economic, that it’s just so important to try and restore the lake.”

The most important thing, she says, is to recognize how much everyone can benefit from pollution reduction. “The way polluted water gets to Jordan Lake is through every creek, through every town. When we clean up those creeks, it’ll be a wonderful local benefit. It’s not all ‘doing it for somebody downstream.’ That’s the major disconnect: People don’t look at the whole picture. We all depend on each other, really. We all live ‘downstream.’ One way or another, you’re dependent on the rest of the world.”

Of her personal experience with the HRA Chiosso, like her colleagues, references the close-knit sense of community.

“There are the tough times. As with any non-profit, the work is endless. You have to find a way to celebrate the small victories,” she says. “We’ve found that balance as an organization between fighting for the river and enjoying it. That way you don’t burn out. That way you can keep going.”

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