Yadkin Riverkeeper

Yadkin Riverkeeper

I continuously scratch my head when I hear locals call High Rock Lake, The River. HRL was created by damming the Yadkin-Pee Dee River for industrial use, and, thankfully, the lake evolved into recreational use as we know it today.  

There are a lot of stakeholders pertaining to High Rock Lake and it all begins at the top, not politically or corporately speaking, but at the start of the Yadkin River in the northwestern part of the state, specifically Watauga County.

Aerial view of Yadkin River.

The Yadkin River is one of the longest rivers in North Carolina, flowing 230 miles. It rises in the northwestern portion of the state near the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Thunder Hill Overlook. Several parts of the river are impounded by dams for water, power, and flood control. The river becomes the Pee Dee River at the confluence of the Uwharrie River south of the community of Badin and east of the town of Albemarle. The river flows into South Carolina near Cheraw, which is at the Fall Line. The entirety of the Yadkin River and the Great Pee Dee River is part of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin. The watershed encompasses nearly 15,000 square miles in both North and South Carolina and a small part of Virginia.

Recently, I met with Brian Fannon, Yadkin Riverkeeper [YRK], based in Winston-Salem to learn more about the body of water I call home, High Rock Lake.  Although I get to see the lake every day, I certainly don’t want to take it for granted. “Water is everybody’s responsibility,” said Fannon. The Yadkin Pee Dee River Basin provides nearly one million people with drinking water and impacts up to one million with fishing tournaments, recreational use, and residences.  

Yadkin Riverkeeper, Brian Fannon.

North Carolina’s rapid population growth, particularly in the Triad region, is having a profound impact on the Yadkin River. This unprecedented growth threatens local drinking water supplies. Consequently, the Riverkeeper program works with residents, regulators, and elected officials throughout the basin to ensure compliance with the federal Clean Water Act and N.C. pollution control laws. Brian discussed the Riverkeepers’ initiatives with me and it is a full spectrum of activities, which include:

  • Engaging citizens in clean water issues through education, advocacy, and action.
  • Promoting sustainable development practices that will accommodate growth without compromising the long-term health of the Yadkin River. 
  • Exploring the River and its tributaries through guided paddles and river cleanup trips to experience its beauty and learn about its threats.
  • Teaching and practicing a “river ethic” of ecological respect for all multiple uses.
  • Affiliating with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the world’s fastest growing environmental movement, with more than 300 Waterkeeper organizations and affiliates protecting rivers, lakes, and coastal waterways on six continents.
  • Partnering with businesses such as Aveda to raise funds to protect water quality through their corporate Earth Month Partner program since 2017. 

18 Riverkeepers and What They Do

North Carolina has more Riverkeepers than most states due to the multitude of rivers. The Yadkin Riverkeeper oversees 16 counties, including Rowan County. There are three pillars of work that encompass the Riverkeepers’ duties: Protecting the River, thus High Rock Lake, Advocating for the River, and Enhancing the River.

Simply put, Riverkeepers monitor the quality of water, the potential threats to it, and how access is used and enjoyed. The Riverkeeper strives to create awareness for recreational use such as fisherman and paddlers alike. “Something that I think is important is the cooperation between YRK and Cube Hydro in developing recreation access and facilities on both the river and HRL. A new river trail map and new kayak and camping facilities on HRL will result from this work, and we are pretty happy about that,” said Fannon.

This summer, the region endured significant high temperatures for a longer period of time with low rain which resulted in algae blooms in parts of the lake. YRK assisted state and county officials in assessing the risk posed by harmful algae blooms in HRL and informed the public and media about the impacts and causes. Through several media channels, including #YourRowan, we reached more than 4,000 individuals making them aware of the potentially harmful algae blooms (HABs).

Why is Protecting Water Quality Important?

The short answer is awareness of what is going into our lake to make sure it’s protected in the future.

The long answer is regulatory oversight and involvement of the water quality, from waste-water treatment plants and agriculture to current technology. Currently, North Carolina does not have a set water quality standard for its rivers and lakes for recreational use.

“In many cases, the discharge water from wastewater treatment plants is of higher quality than what is in the river. Often, the water in the river will not meet the water quality standards for wastewater treatment plant discharge; the water going out is cleaner than the river water brought in.”

“The point is, wastewater treatment plants are not the problem with water quality in the Yadkin River; the culprits are Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) combined with poor agricultural practices, and stormwater runoff,” continued Fannon.

Below are a couple of useful links regarding CAFOs:



Visuals on the Poultry-Related Nutrient Flow in the Yadkin River Basin.

YRK was an integral part of the recent settlement with Duke Power to excavate the coal ash at Buck Power Plant, which set a precedent for the agreement between Duke and North Carolina, announced January 1, 2020. Duke will now excavate nearly all the coal ash in North Carolina.

“This is a huge step forward in protecting N.C.’s water, and we are proud of our participation in both the Buck Steam Plant settlement and in the statewide meetings to push for cleanup at all coal ash facilities. As the Buck coal ash threatened HRL, this is a very pertinent issue for its residents there,” commented Fannon.

How Can We Help?

The Yadkin Riverkeeper is funded by individuals, companies, and foundations who share a commitment to clean water. Help us keep the Yadkin River fishable, swimmable, and drinkable, now and for future generations. We welcome you to become a member for $35 ($25 for students).  

Currently, YRK has 300 members. In 2019, YRK exceeded its corporate donation revenue projections by nearly 40%, received a $22,500 grant from Winston-Salem Foundation for board and staff diversity training, and hired a part-time diversity communications specialist.

Yadkin River Dam.

In addition:  

  • The Yadkin Riverkeeper successfully launched its historical paddle series and River Reconnect program, with the goal of providing educational programming and water-based recreation opportunities for underserved youth.
  • Began collecting data for the YRK Swim Guide program, providing information to the surrounding communities on E. coli levels in four popular swimming areas on the river and HRL. YRK now has in-house capacity to analyze samples in real time and report results to the public and local health agencies.
  • Facilitated an agreement between Cube Hydro Carolinas and N.C. Division of State Parks to use $40,000 in funding from FERC-approved Recreation Plan for a new paddle trail map.
  • Developed outreach materials for a sustainable agricultural initiative to promote local, sustainable meat and dairy farmers who market their products directly to consumers.
  • Supported local community efforts to improve and expand access to the river, including educational presentations, paddles and outreach programs for high school students and local civic organizations.

Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. has been a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, supported by the generosity of individuals, corporations and organizations that care about clean water, since 2008. For more information, go to www.yadkinriverkeeper.org

Yadkin River at High Rock Lake.

I would love to hear from you on what your favorite lake activity is, or someone that you would like me to feature in 2020. Please email me at highrock@YourRowan.com


#itsaROCOthing         #lakeliving      #YourRowan    #BeAnOriginal     #HighRockLake

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About The Author

Joyce Caron-Mercier

After three decades of working in the motorsports industry from track and team management to public relations, and overseeing sponsorship and driver contracts within NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar and World of Outlaws competition, Joyce wanted more. She came to ACS Charlotte in February 2020 as the staff lead for the annual Taste of Hope Charlotte gala. Joyce’s role encompasses event production, sponsorship cultivation and implementation, public awareness, and interaction with the Charlotte gala Board of Ambassadors, and launched the Young Professionals CLT ABOA in 2022. Joyce and her husband Paul of 32 years discovered High Rock Lake, situated between Rowan and Davidson Counties, and quickly became full-time lake residents on North Carolina’s second largest lake with their two Great Danes, Max and Molly. Joyce writes a monthly blog for Your Rowan, a county marketing initiative to share the positive attributes of Rowan County with its residents and visitors. Joyce’s blog and social handles are called ‘Joyce on the Lake’. Being community minded is important and I serve as Secretary on the Board of Directors for the High Rock Lake Association, High Rock Lake Clean Sweep, and assist the Rowan Chamber with their annual Dragon Boat Festival.