After years of being the in-the-stream science guy behind Haywood Waterways Association, Eric Romaniszyn is taking the helm as the nonprofit’s executive director, something he sees as a natural outgrowth of his work in conservation biology.
“Doing what I do now is in some ways a lot like what I did growing up,” Romaniszyn said. “Turning over rocks in streams and seeing what’s underneath.”
Romaniszyn succeeded Ron Moser as executive director in January, and since then, he’s been working hard to make up the gap on his predecessor as a bookkeeper.
“Ron brought a lot of skill in record-keeping and accounting, and my strong suit is on the science side,” Romaniszyn said. “So that’s been my biggest challenge.”
With a supportive board and Moser just a phone call away, though, Romaniszyn is ready to take on Haywood Waterways perennial challenge –– restoring the rivers and streams of Haywood County to a pristine state –– with his own set of skills.
Originally from northwest Pennsylvania, Romaniszyn grew up fishing and exploring the rivers and streams of the northern Appalachians. He went on to get a master’s degree in aquatic entomology from the University of Georgia and did his research at the United States Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Lab in Macon County, where he fell in love with the mountains of Western North Carolina.
He settled on studying aquatic insects because of his love of fishing and because of a supportive advisor who told him bugs were a good way to go.
“The problem with biologists is we’re interested in everything,” Romaniszyn said. “It’s hard to find a niche.”
Romaniszyn and his wife both lucked out to find jobs in the region in their field. His wife, Kathleen, is a sociology professor and dean at Western Carolina University.
Since 2004, Romaniszyn, who’s now 38, has been using his science to organize and educate property owners in Haywood County about the benefits of creating a clean and healthy Pigeon River watershed.
The Haywood Waterways Association is small shop –– one-and-a-half full time staff right now –– that acts as a facilitator to arrange the funding, technical assistance, and community cooperation that can make a watershed healthier. The work primarily involves leveraging grants and matching funds to engaging partnerships between agencies that have technical resources and landowners.
“We find the money and technical resources, and then we work with partners to get it to the landowners,” Romaniszyn said.
They’re the good cops in the environmental world, giving other people’s money to landowners who can’t afford to clean up their failed septic systems or don’t know how to build driveways without intensifying runoff.
Romaniszyn points to Haywood Waterway’s record of obtaining grants with pride. The nonprofit has applied for 80 grants since its inception and gotten 76, bringing a whopping $5.8 million to Haywood County during that period.
The organization’s aim is to reduce all the pollution that runs off the land and ends up in the creeks and streams — from hog manure to over-use of pesticides to oily residue from parking lots. Erosion from construction is the worst culprit for water pollution these days.
In a current project that demonstrates its mission and function, Haywood Waterways has partnered with N.C. Department of Environment, Mountain Projects, and property owners to repair septic systems in the Hyatt Creek watershed.
Romaniszyn’s biggest challenge is following through on his board’s mission to build reserve accounts and an endowment over the next 10 years that will guarantee Haywood Waterways Association’s future in perpetuity.
But those ambitious goals are part and parcel of his experience at Haywood Waterways, and he’s happy to have a board with high expectations.
“We’ve really grown in the last six years,” Romaniszyn said. “Every week seems to bring a new project. It’s just been a challenge to make sure we have the resources to do everything.”