Making a Lake

Photographer Ted Richardson and I spent quite a few weekends one summer rambling around the Deep River, where the Randleman reservoir was about to be built.  We met dairy farmers and homeowners, renters and swimmers and lifetime dam opponents, whose conflicting feelings about the dam we tried to capture in a radio story, photographs and a print story.  Here’s the story that ran on WUNC.


A print version of the piece also appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal, where I was working as a reporter. At the time, I hadn’t had much experience working across platforms (or as a print reporter, for that matter), so I recall it as a great learning experience.

Here is that story:

Willie Coltrane remembers first hearing about the Randleman Dam when he was just a boy.

” I went with my father into Randleman. A neighbor … came running out of his driveway and said, ‘Hold up, Robert. Hold up. I want to talk to you.’ He got out into the road and he said, ‘The Corps of Engineers is surveying up the river for a dam to be built!’”

The year was 1918.

When the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority holds an official groundbreaking ceremony for the $120 million Randleman Dam and reservoir next month, it will end one chapter in a drama that has taken nearly a century to unfold.

In 1937, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam on the Deep River near Randleman as a means of flood control. The project would have taken 10,000 acres of farmland.

Thirty years later, Congress approved the $11 million project, and residents organized to fight it.

Coltrane and his wife, Edith, were on the front lines, even after the project was scaled back, and their land was spared.

“I had started it and in order to help my friend, Thelma Adams, I went right along with her and they were going to take her home over there on the river,” Edith Coltrane said.

She went to hundreds of meetings to speak out on the project and spent countless hours talking with people under the shade of a maple tree in her backyard. Now, at 89 and in frail health, she spends most of her time in a recliner near a picture window in her kitchen. More often than not, Willie occupies the chair a few feet away from her.

“We did everything we could do, sure did,” Edith Coltrane said. “We did everything we could do, except stop it.”

When the reservoir is finished in 2004, it will provide as much as 48 million gallons of water a day to Greensboro, High Point, Randleman and other towns around it.

The path of the water
Most of the people whose homes were in the path of the water have long since sold their land or packed up and moved away from the river. The water authority started buying up land in 1988. What land it couldn’t buy it condemned. The water authority needed a total of 6,000 acres in northern Randolph and southern Guilford counties – about half for the reservoir and half for a 200-foot buffer zone all the way around it.

George Stanton sold 127 acres of his grain farm about eight years ago, but he insisted on keeping his house and about 45 acres around it. At 72, he is one of the last grain farmers in this part of Randolph County. When the river is dammed, the reservoir will be about 200 feet from his backyard swimming pool.

“We’ve always lived on a dirt road. We couldn’t get the road paved on account of the Randleman Lake. It’s paved over yonder and paved over here and that’s as far as they’d pave it,” Stanton said as he sat on his front porch, watching a thunderstorm gather in the sky above the rolling fields. “It’s been a gravel road ever since it was built in 1936.”

Stanton never believed that the dam would be built, and he never put up much of a fight. But others did. Opponents thought that they had scored a victory when the Corps of Engineers dropped the dam project in 1987. The federal Office of Management and Budget had determined that the cost of building the dam would outstrip the benefit of controlling flooding downstream.

But by then, the purpose of the project had also changed from flood control and recreation to providing drinking water for Greensboro and other nearby communities.

State leaders had already seen the handwriting on the wall. If they wanted to build the Randleman Dam, they would have to do it without federal money.

In 1986, the state set up the water authority. Though it studied dozens of other solutions to Greensboro’s chronic water problems, it preferred the Randleman Dam.

Stanton was among the first landowners to sell, but he negotiated the right to farm it until construction starts.

“We just hate to see the farm go because it’s an old land-grant deed farm. Two brothers came in here and settled here and we’ve got the old original land-grant deed,” he said. “But people got to have water to drink. You’ve got to get it from somewhere.”

The dam builders arrived in Randleman a couple of weeks ago to set up shop on a huge graveled lot on the outskirts of town. They’re building roads into the dam site, in a place that locals refer to as “the second bend.” After that, they’ll begin diverting the flow of the Deep River.

Politics: It’s in the water
John Forbis was the mayor of Greensboro when the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority was formed, and he is the only original member of the group still serving.

“We always, always had a water problem. This town has no business being where it is. It sits on a large rock outcropping. Everything runs away from it. Subsequently, there’s no opportunity to develop new water resources. The Deep (River) is, when you look right at it, our only option.”

Forbis would be among the first to tell you that the Randleman Reservoir presented a lot of environmental challenges, but he is confident that they have been met.

High Point will discharge 26 million gallons of treated wastewater into the reservoir every day. The lake will be built over a part of an old High Point landfill, and the former Seaboard Chemical plant, a Superfund cleanup site, is about 2,000 feet from the shoreline of the proposed reservoir.

Every public agency that deals with public health and environmental issues has concluded that the water will be safe to drink. All of these factors have been accounted for in three separate environmental impact statements, and millions have been spent on cleanup along the river.

“We’ve run every one of those rabbits to ground,” Forbis said.

Organized opposition to the project has dwindled, as landowners settled with the water authority and environmental agencies declared the water would be safe to drink.

But a few people, including Alan Horton, the dam’s most vocal opponent and a member of the Deep River Citizens Coalition, remain unconvinced. He is particularly concerned about concentrations of phosphorus, which cause algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water.

“When you know you’re going to have nutrification problems in a lake, when you know you are going to have problems treating the water … the engineers say ‘Yes, we can treat the water to the standards,’ but that’s not guaranteeing you safe water,” Horton said.

The coalition and the American Canoe Association have appealed the project’s water quality permit to the state court of appeals, where a judgment is pending, and Horton has threatened to file an injunction in federal court to try to stop construction.

Deep River, shallow water
The water of the Deep River still draws people to its winding shores.

Most every weekend, Tony Ruggiero takes his kids down to the river to play in a deep spot back along a winding path a quarter-mile into the woods near Sophia.

Ruggiero has adopted the river as his own. Each time he comes, he spends time cleaning debris out of the river bottom. As his daughter, Pricilla, splashed onto shore, he pointed to a pile of rusty metal nearby.

Ruggiero moved his family here from Greensboro six years ago, to be near the new lake.

“I’ve had 80-year-old people tell me it wouldn’t be built in my lifetime,” Ruggiero said. “It’s coming and we’re saying, ‘All right!’ That’s all I can say. We love it. We’ve been coming down here 15 years.”

The shore where Ruggiero stood will be covered under six feet of water after the reservoir is filled in 2003. Once it’s built, his children won’t be able to swim in it. The water authority’s rules prohibit swimming and limit the size and type of motorboats on the lake.

Darrell Frye, a Randolph County commissioner who serves on the water authority, said: “I want people to take a little 10 horsepower (motor) and go out there and fish on a Saturday afternoon – that’s OK. Just to have massive recreation, no. And I really don’t think that will happen.”

Frye said that Randolph County officials were adamant that the state would not be allowed to take people’s homes and land for recreation.

Frye has been a Randolph County commissioner for 20 years, and he has always backed the project.

“In 20 years, you make a lot of decisions and you see the immediate results,” Frye said. “That’s the biggest decision I made and I won’t know the value of it until long after I leave office.”

Water-powered development
Herschel Hockett runs the Green Valley dairy farm near Level Cross with his father, Stanton, and brother, Keith. Dairy farming is all he’s ever done.

The Hocketts are remnants of a dairy farming community that has dwindled to just five family farms in this part of Randolph County. So far, they have made a go of their farm by expanding it as aggressively as they can. They will have to sell only 26 acres of their family land for the buffer zone around the lake, but Hockett is worried that it will attract new kinds of neighbors – subdivisions full of people who won’t look kindly on having a dairy farm nearby.

“We pretty much believe that it’ll be built up with fine homes around this lake,” Hockett said. “As long as we’ve got the land right here and there’s nobody that’s even touching us at all, we’ll be able to make our own decisions about whether we’re going to stay in the business or not.”

The bylaws of the water authority prohibit development in the buffer zone, but not on the land beyond it.

If land prices escalate the way Hockett thinks they will, his family will stand to make a tidy profit from selling their land, but it would mean giving up the livelihoods that have defined their lives.

The reservoir will eventually provide about 1 million gallons of water a day to Randleman. The Deep River runs right through the center of town, but it’s never had a very good water supply and the town has to buy some of its water from nearby Asheboro.

The reservoir gives town leaders and residents hope that they’ll be able to attract industry to replace the mills and factories that once dotted the river’s winding shores.

“If it brings in business, it can be a plus, but you’ll never know until it gets here,” said Randleman resident Ed Smith.

Published in the Winston-Salem Journal July 29, 2001