The announcement affirmed what Bob Williams, environmental monitor for Blue Ridge Paper, already knew: despite the bad rap the mill carries from errs of year’s past, water quality in the Pigeon River is safe and healthy today.
With water quality on the mend, Blue Ridge Paper has been focusing on the final piece of the puzzle for the Pigeon River to be restored to a fully functioning ecosystem. The mill has been spending $60,000 annually for the past five years to support a project to reintroduce a dozen native species to the river downstream of the mill all the way to Newport, Tenn.
Even though water quality has been healthy enough to support native species killed off from pollution decades ago, getting those species to return was a different story.
“There wasn’t a natural colonization route because of the dams on the river,” said Steve Fraley, an aquatic specialist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which is also involved in the reintroduction program. “Regardless of what the water quality might be, we realized it would require some assistance to get those species back in the river.”
Researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville have been the lead scientists in the effort, which so far has restored snails, mollusks, minnows, darters and various shiners to the river.
While reintroducing trout and species popular with fishermen is nothing new, this is one of the first attempts at restoring a river with such a host of species, making it a one-of-a-kind project, Williams said.
Researchers first had to decide what species likely lived in the Pigeon River 100 years ago, prior to the mill’s existence. Next they had to located genetically similar fish in other creeks and rivers, catch them and move them to the Pigeon. The species are marked with a harmless florescent orange dye before they are released so they can be identified later.
Researchers periodically climb into wetsuits and snorkels and sweep the river to see if the fish survived. The tracking work has gotten more sophisticated lately with a $20,000 grant from the Pigeon River Fund to buy a raft equipped with a GPS device and underwater camera. The raft and camera can troll the river, photographing whatever is in its path. Researchers can review the images in the lab and know the exact spot where the species were spotted thanks to the GPS coordinates that coincide with each picture.
Students at four schools in Haywood County have been recruited to help with the native species reintroduction (see related article). Blue Ridge Paper is funding that program as well, buying the equipment and tanks. Fraley is providing technical assistance and additional funding from the Wildlife Commission. The coordinator for the schools is Kathy Boylston, a water quality educator funded by the Pigeon River Fund (which is funded by Progress Energy as mitigation for its power plant on the Piegon River at Waterville).
“This is a way to increase awareness that water quality has gotten better and show our commitment not to just improving water quality leaving the mill but see that the habitat itself sees the benefits of that,” Williams said.