By Gina Malone
When it comes to water, Haywood Waterways Association (HWA) takes care of its own. All of the water flowing through Haywood County, including the Pigeon River, originates within county lines, making it the only such county east of the Mississippi River.
This month HWA celebrates its 20th year as a nonprofit organization with a mission, says executive director Eric Romaniszyn, “to improve and protect surface water in Haywood County.” Programs include Adopt-a- Stream, Storm Drain Stenciling, Kids in the Creek, Leaders in the Creek and various recreational events to help people get up close and personal with the water. Stream restorations and water monitoring are among the projects HWA oversees.
“We are a member-based organization so we rely on our members for our base funds,” Romaniszyn says. “However, we don’t just spend their money; we leverage it for greater good. For every $1 donated, we are able to pull $25.77 from other sources.” The group, in collaboration with many partners, has a more than 80 percent success rate in obtaining grants, with a total received to date of more than $7.6 million.
One of HWA’s founders, board member Bill Eaker, saw the need for the organization in 1994 when Progress Energy (now Duke Energy) created the Pigeon River Fund, administered by the Community Foundation for Western North Carolina, for projects in Buncombe, Madison and Haywood counties. “We formed the Haywood Waterways organization in part to take advantage of that funding opportunity,” Eaker says. First grants were received in 1997, and HWA became a nonprofit in 1998.
“Eaker has been here from the start,” Romaniszyn says, “and has seen how the organization and the community have changed. He’s very active and has donated immensely both financially and with his time to helping the organization grow and make a difference.”
HWA partners with other groups to find the technical and financial resources to protect and improve water quality. “A lot of what we do requires a team approach with each of us bringing our own set of skills to solve the issue,” Romaniszyn says.
Two key partners are the Southwestern NC Resource Conservation and Development Council and Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District. “A lot of what we do also is education and outreach,” says Eaker, “teaching people how to be good stewards of the water.”
Its major fundraiser, the Polar Plunge into the waters of Lake Junaluska, held each February for the last five years, is one of the many ways HWA involves the community in raising funds for, and spreading the word about, good stewardship of the county’s pristine waters. “We’re touching a lot of people,” Eaker says, “who wouldn’t necessarily be involved in water quality.”
HWA honors “Water Champions” each year. Several individuals were recognized for outstanding contributions in 2016, as was the Town of Maggie Valley, which received the Big Creek Award for Partner of the Year for its work in keeping Jonathan Creek clean. HWA was the recipient itself this year of a Community Pride Award from the Haywood County Commission for its work.
This will also be the 20th year of the Kids in the Creek program, which, to date, has reached more than 12,000 eighth-grade students. This comprehensive program gets kids, clad in waders, out in the water at Canton Recreational Park to learn about organisms that indicate poor or good water quality.
“When they get out there,” Romaniszyn says, “it’s like they’re second-graders again. It definitely has a big impact.” Volunteers from such organizations as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee Valley Authority, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District are on hand to educate students on the science behind water quality.
Based on the success of this program, Leaders in the Creek was begun in 2016, bringing adults, especially elected officials and business people, some of the same hands-on experiences the teenagers are getting. “It really opens up their minds,” says Eaker, “as to how important water is.”
Volunteers are always needed, Romaniszyn says, for water quality monitoring, helping at public and fundraising events and spreading the word about HWA’s clean water efforts.
To learn more about Haywood Waterways Association, visit haywoodwaterways.org or call 828.476.4667.