Cape Fear River’s Keeper: Kemp Burdette with River Watch

Kemp Burdette is Cape Fear Riverkeeper® at Cape Fear River Watch since 2010, working to protect and improve the water quality of the Cape Fear River. Kemp grew up in Wilmington, a self-proclaimed “water rat,” and traveled the world with the US Navy, as a Fulbright Scholar and then with the Peace Corps, before returning to complete his Masters in Public Administration at UNCW. Also on the board of Waterkeeper Alliance, he is part of a global environmental effort to preserve swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. In his “down” time, Kemp spends hours with his daughters on the water, looking for gators, watching birds, and passing on his love of the river.

Cape Fear Living Magazine: You just got back from paddling the river, how did it go?

Kemp Burdette: Believe it or not, I had never paddled the entire length of the Cape Fear River. I’ve definitely paddled a lot of it, but never all 200 miles. Our State magazine – the second largest regional magazine – did a piece, “100 Voices from 100 Counties,” and I was the voice from this county. They came back and contacted me about a new story. They said that they wanted to paddle down the river, and I said, well, sure … then we put it together. Actually, I put more of it together, knowing the river better, and knowing places to stay, and knowing people who lived along the river.

CFL: Was the trip what you had anticipated it would be?

Kemp: Yes and no. I had been on the water a lot, in the very headwaters, starting up at Mermaid Point, because I had worked on a big coal plant pollution project up there, and of course I’ve been on a lot of the lower part, but the middle section – that was the section that I was least familiar with and that was pretty exciting, really beautiful and different than we see here: rocky cliffs and rapid sections.

CFL: Do many people paddle the river?

Kemp: No … no … and the reason is, it’s difficult to find places to camp that aren’t private land. It’s not like if you go out to Colorado, almost the entire river goes through national parks, so you can pull over anywhere you want and camp. Lots of large rivers out west are largely government property. But here, almost all the land along the river is privately owned. I got permission from landowners. One night we stayed in Lillington, at Howard’s Barbecue – on that property there is a little outfitter place that rents canoes and kayaks. We camped in the field. Second night, we found kind of a sandbar area that we camped on. We had planned on camping at Old Bluff Church, which is a really old 1750s church, on the river, but it had high bluffs – clay, slippery bluffs – and it would have been difficult to get all our gear up. So about a mile before, we found a beautiful sandbar. We were averaging about 25 miles a day, so adding one mile to the next day wasn’t a huge adjustment. The next night we stayed on some property of a River Watch member, night after that, on the property of a friend of mine, in his little cabin there, the night after that, on another sandbar that is state land, attached to Bladen Lakes State Forest, the next night was Wilmington, so we stayed at home, and then the next morning we finished up, down in Southport.

CFL: Was this a “Survivor Man” adventure?

Cape Fear River Watch Kemp BurdetteKemp: It was pretty tough. Not to say that I’m some kind of amazing paddler, but we had four guys and we are all paddlers: a kayak shop owner, me, a big outdoors photographer, and the writer, who had been a raft guide at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte – he’s fit and knew how to paddle. I would say it would be very difficult for the average paddler. It was pretty physically demanding. It was 8 hours a day, at minimum. One day we did 12 [sighing hugely], my muscles were sore, but let me tell you it was as much my hands – just from holding those paddles every second. All of our hands were sore and swollen!

CFL: What was the coolest thing you saw?

Kemp: I can’t say there was one cool thing. There’s one section called Narrow Gap where the river just shoots through this pretty narrow section of rock. It’s not a lot of rapids, not boiling water, but it’s very quick, and you paddle in, and once you’re in you kind of shoot through there. We watched an otter for a while one day – usually that’s a pretty good sign for the river. We saw lots of birds, probably saw 20 bald eagles. We locked through the chamber at Lock and Dam #2, that was fun in the kayaks, and some really pretty sandbars on the lower part of the river below Lock and Dam #1 – those were really neat. We left Wilmington on the last day, about an hour before sunrise, so it was pitch dark when we left and by the time we got down to the state port there was a ship coming in with the tugboat pushing it. Seeing that at night was neat.

CFL: You had planned on blogging, how did that go?

Kemp: I kind of photo-blogged. I took pictures and wrote captions, and then I would send them to Jen on my phone and she would post them on our website. I don’t know if you’d call that blogging; it’s a little tricky to take pictures while you’re paddling.

CFL: We’ll call that blogging! When you’re not in your kayak, what are you concentrating on?

Kemp: Most of my time is spent doing advocacy work. Some of it is like this river trip, but a lot of it is just to increase people’s awareness of the river, what the good parts are and what the bad parts are, and why we need to be protecting it. We are drinking the river – the water doesn’t just come out of your tap from nowhere … it’s coming from someplace, and in our case it’s the river. So at River Watch, we are talking about pollution, the big CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] – we are protecting our body of water, and we’re willing to do it through advocacy work. If needed, we’ll sue polluters, we’ll do policy work at the government level, we’ll document pollutants.

CFL: What are the current priorities at River Watch?

Kemp: Two of the big things I’ve been working on for years have been recently fixed – Titan, they are officially out now, the state has rescinded their permit. We fought hard for 8 years, it’s a great outcome. Titan was a real eye-opener for Wilmington and the Cape Fear region because we saw that we are real susceptible to more and more of this kind of thing, because of the way we were pitching development. We had very little control over what got developed and where, so now we’re pushing – this an effort led primarily by the Coastal Federation – for stronger zoning regulations. We’re saying, let’s agree on what kind of business we want here, let’s make it easy for them to come. We’ve got the second smallest county and the second most populated county, and a lot of people packing into a little place, and you can’t put something that has huge pollution emissions in a really densely populated area, without destroying what you’ve got there already – which is an economy based on natural resources. We also won two large lawsuits over the coal ash pollutants. In addition to working between the state and the EPA to regulate CAFOs, we are working on fish population restoration.

CFL: Is there a solution to these challenges, one that safeguards the river?

Kemp: That’s what we are trying to do now, get a good special use permit adopted by the county as a way of saying, let’s bring in what we want, like clean business, tech business, and make it difficult for the things we don’t want to come in and mess it up for everybody else.

CFL: Fighting for the river, is this what you thought you would be doing?

Kemp: I always had a passion for the environment, but I didn’t always imagine the activist side of it. I grew up on the river, I grew up goofing around on the river, a big outdoors person, lots of camping, my folks had a place up on the Black River. I loved the water, and I loved the river, but I wasn’t an environmentalist. That love of the outdoors translates to a need to protect that environment. I was just a “user” of the outdoors and then … I went into the military, came back, went to college and started to put the two together, started to take courses – like coastal geology – that were showing the need to protect the environment . I saw that without people working to protect the environment, it wasn’t going to happen. I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be doing something in the environmental field, and the nonprofit field, something local.

The horn sounds that the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is going up, over the river by the office.

CFL: How clean is our river? It actually looks pretty good.

Kemp: It’s not that clean. Um … I get that question all the time and it’s really difficult. The river is not a single lab sample that you can analyze. It’s the largest watershed in North Carolina, 1000 miles of navigable waterways, so what is going on upriver is very different than what’s going on in another spot … it is a huge 9000 square miles. It’s the size of the state of New Jersey. There are parts of it that are clean, and there are times when it is clean, there are also parts of it that are not clean, and every second of every day, that changes. We paddled for eight days and for the vast majority of it, I would describe the river as beautiful, and I would have said this looks beautiful: rapids, bluffs, swamps, forests, flowers, and trees and wildlife and fish. The problems are what’s beyond that visual. When you actually look at the amount of nutrient runoff, look at discharges from coal ash ponds, when you can watch them flow into the river and paddle down 20 minutes and see the drinking water intake for a town. You can say to yourself, I know what went in there and what’s coming out here, and that’s not good.

CFL: You are the river’s keeper.

Kemp: Yes, it’s got plenty of problems. As you sit here, watching the river, that’s a sad thing.

CFL: What’s the future of the river, then?

Kemp: The Cape Fear River is huge part of what Wilmington is. We’re not here because of the beaches, we’re here because of the river. The river is hugely important to us and very unique to North Carolina. It’s the largest, the most diverse, and the only one that empties into the Atlantic. It drives a huge part of our economy. You’ve got to look at the future of the area; you have to say, “What do we want to look like in 20 years?” We want to be better than we are now, I know that. Twenty years ago, there was nothing downtown but me and my little skateboarder friends. Now you’ve got a downtown that celebrates the river. You’ve got the Riverwalk, a vibrant economy- people are coming to walk along the river. We need to keep that good thing going. We need to keep the reason people come here, which is the natural environment. We need to make it in better and better shape, and the more people we have here, the harder we have to work to keep it nice, because that puts more and more demands on the river. We have to work to make sure there’s enough water in the river for us to drink. We do get better and better at protecting the river from negative impacts. People are getting better at it; Wilmington is getting better at it.

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