As summer approaches, Waynesville’s green spaces are getting greener, but they’re also getting greater — in size.
When droves of Haywood Community College wildlife and forestry students scrambled down the banks of Richland Creek last weekend with trash bags in hand, they knew it would be hard to top last year’s famed refuse recovery.
An old moonshine still, probably a few decades old, had washed down the mountain still partially intact and lodged in the creek.
“There was even a bottle that still had material in it, too,” said Shannon Rabby, HCC Fish and Wildlife Management instructor.
But an hour into the creek cleanup in Waynesville last Saturday, and nothing quite that exciting had emerged so far.
“Mostly newspapers, cups, cans, plastic bags, any kind of trash that shouldn’t be in the stream,” said Corey Grabley, 28, a wildlife student at HCC from Brevard.
The workday was part of the statewide Big Sweep, where communities from the coast to the mountains descend on their local creeks, rivers and lakes to pick trash from the water and banks.
“Trash begets trash. The cleaner it is the less likely people are to throw out more trash,” Rabby said of the Haywood Big Sweep. “We brought out 2,000 pounds last year and will probably come back this year with another 2,000 pounds.”
By day’s end, however, the group had netted a record amount of trash, coming in at 3,280 pounds.
Most of the trash being fished out doesn’t decompose — plastic, Styrofoam, glass and aluminum — so it’s hard to imagine just how litter-strewn Richland Creek would be if not for the annual volunteer day.
Some of the trash is clearly a result of people intentionally tossing their garbage to the curb or out the window. But much of it has far more innocent origins. It’s that plastic bag that blew away in the parking lot, or the water bottle that fell out of your car door and rolled down the driveway when you weren’t looking, eventually making its way to the storm drain down the street and then, ultimately, into Richland Creek.
“There’s a lot of trash that washes off the parking lots and stuff into the creek,” said Dustin Robinson, 22, a fish and wildlife student at HCC from Hendersonville. “Most of it is just people being careless, and when the rain comes it just washes it down into the creek.”
Robinson spent the morning slogging through the knee-deep water in old tennis shoes.
“It is pretty cold,” he admitted.
More than five dozen volunteers tackled the Big Sweep in Waynesville despite a drizzly, not-so-warm morning.
“If you think about it, the weather shouldn’t really stop you. You may be a little cold but you are fixing the planet that you live on,” said Patrick Allen, 16, a student at Haywood Early College.
“The trash isn’t going to just pick itself up,” added Lindsey Hires, 16.
Volunteers split into groups and were dispatched to different stretches of Richland Creek, ultimately scouring the banks from downtown Waynesville to the mouth of Lake Junaluska. Wildlife and forestry students at HCC were out in force as organizers of the cleanup, but several community members pitched in as well.
Cecelia Rhoden, 17, saw a flyer calling for volunteers on a bulletin board at HCC where she attends Haywood Early College.
“It feels pretty awesome knowing that we can do something that doesn’t even really matter how young we are,” Rhoden said. “You can’t always buy organic food or buy the recycled products, but this is something that costs absolutely nothing but your time, that you can come out and do for free.”
“I think this is the one thing teenagers can do that adults can do as well, but teenagers can join in without being taken over by adults,” said Allen.
Plus, they were more than willing to get a little dirty — slip sliding down creek banks and rummaging through the underbrush — and were equally undaunted by thorns or poison ivy.
“We are crawling under things and in things,” Allen said.
Allen, Rhoden and Hires got a bit more than they bargained for, however, after being assigned the stretch of creek under the Russ Avenue bridge. A small homeless population in Waynesville lives under the bridge, and the kids were surprised to find sleeping bags and other clear signs of human occupation — along with copious volumes of bottles and cans.
“We got about 80 to 100 glass bottles,” Rhoden said.
Since the kids were bent on recycling what they could, they emptied the contents of beer and liquor bottles and separated them from the rest of their trash finds.
“If you don’t recycle, you aren’t fixing the problem. You are just putting it somewhere else,” said Rhoden.
As for this year’s prized find?
“No liquor still this year… but one student found a large coconut,” Rabby said.
It’s not to late to join in. The Big Sweep is still coming up in several counties.
• Jackson County is set for Oct. 1; James Jackson, Tuckaseegee Outfitters, 828.508.3377.
• Macon County also is Oct. 1; meet at Gooder Grafix on East Main Street in Franklin at 9 a.m.; Guy Gooder, 828.421.4845.
• Swain County has two Big Sweeps, on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2. Nantahala River put in at 11 a.m. on Oct. 1 or shuttle from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. On Oct. 2, volunteers meet at the Swain County Administration Building at 9 a.m.; Laurie McLaren Perkins, 828.488.9735.
Richland Creek is now teaming with new inhabitants raised by Haywood County students in classroom fish tanks.
After feeding and caring for the fish all year, the students set them free last week as part of an effort to restore native species to the creek that courses through Waynesville.
During the streamside field day, students explored water quality, performing many of the same tests on creek water they had on the aquariums in the class, such as measuring the pH and the temperature.
“The best way for kids to learn about the environment and ecology of streams is to actually get in the water,” said Bill Eaker, a board member with Haywood Waterways Association, which has worked on the project. “They remember a lot more from hands-on activities than sitting in the classroom.”
Biologists with the N.C. Division of Water Quality used nets to dredge aquatic critters from the creek and lay them out for inspection.
“What lives in the stream is an indication of how clean the water is,” Eaker said as the students sifted through rocks and sticks for a crayfish.
As part of their experiments, the students pulled up buckets of creek water to observe how much sediment was in the stream.
“What does the water run through on its way to the creek?” Mark Ethridge, a science teacher at Tuscola, posed to the students. “The ground.”
While it might seem obvious, Ethridge was working up to an “ah-hah” moment, one that would help students realize how a watershed works.
“You see those mountains over there?” Ethridge asked, pointing to the ridges that ring Waynesville. “When it rains on those mountains it all washes down and ends up right here.”
Ethridge explained how rare it is that in Haywood County all the water that flows through the county originate here, making it one of the few places that has complete control its own destiny when it comes to water quality.
To support clean water and water quality education in Haywood County, become a member or donate to Haywood Waterways Association. www.haywoodwaterways.org
Ed Williams lugged a giant plastic bag teaming with silvery blue fish down a creek bank in Waynesville where they would soon test the waters of their new home.
Earlier that day, the fish were scooped out of Jonathan Creek and hauled across the county in coolers to this spot on Richland Creek. The Tuckasegee darters didn’t need much coaxing once Williams untied the bag. In a flash of tiny fins, the 200 darters were deployed on their mission to once again repopulate Richland Creek.
The Tuckasegee darters are one of eight lost species that were killed off in Richland Creek decades ago due to industrial pollution. The water is much cleaner now, but the fish need a helping hand to reclaim their old territory. The dam at Lake Junaluska stands in the way of natural migration, thus Williams and a team of biologists from various environmental agencies are reintroducing the species by hand.
“All the species need to be present and work together to be a healthy ecosystem,” said Williams, a water quality advocate with the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
Williams is one year in to the three-year effort. By the end of the project, he hopes Richland Creek will be taken off the state’s list of “impaired waters.”
Richland Creek had two strikes against it when it landed on the state’s list of “impaired waters.”
The first was a lack of biological integrity, meaning all the species that are supposed to live there don’t. The reintroduction aimed at reversing the problem seems to be working so far. Species released into the creek last spring and fall have survived, based on a recent survey by Williams and his team.
“They all looked happy and healthy, so they seem to like their new home,” Williams said.
The real test is to come, however.
“In the fall, if we find some small ones, we will know they are reproducing,” Williams said.
The second strike against Richland Creek was contamination from leaking sewer lines and septic tanks, resulting in high levels of fecal coliform. Williams has led an effort to fix this as well, working alongside town sewer crews to patch leaks and identify culprits.
The goal is noble. It’s rare for a creek to find its way off the list of impaired waters, especially when it means tackling both pollution and a dearth of species. Time will tell if the efforts pay off.
To read a story on the effort to clean up fecal coliform in Richland Creek, go to http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/1156.
Another 110 acres of mountain landscape are now part of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s protected corridor, thanks to a landowner whose family has lived near the scenic highway since its construction.
The Conservation Trust for North Carolina bought the tract from landowners Joe and Wilma Jo Arrington last year at a bargain sale price. It recently conveyed the tract to the National Park Service in February for $500,000 to become an official part of the Parkway.
The property, known as the Richland Creek Headwaters tract, is near Milepost 440 in Haywood County. The Arrington family purchased it in 1936. When parkway construction reached the region in the late 1950s, 30 of the family’s 188 acres were condemned and used for the site of Pinnacle Ridge Tunnel.
The Richland Creek Headwaters tract provides a backdrop for Blue Ridge Parkway travelers – especially from the Waynesville and Saunook overlooks – near the boundary of Haywood and Jackson counties in the Great Balsam Mountains.
The tract’s position will help safeguard water quality in the region; the property contains headwaters streams of Richland Creek, which flows through Waynesville and into Lake Junalaska. The land also contains important wildlife habitat in the Pinnacle Ridge Significant Natural Area.
Ed Williams is an expert when it comes to spotting the telltale signs of sewage seeping into creeks.
“You get an eye and a nose for it,” Williams said. “You put the boots on and get in. You just start at the mouth and walk up, keeping your eyes open and looking for funny smells, too.”
Williams has put his reconnaissance skills to work along the primary urban creeks running through Waynesville and Sylva. He’s found sewage oozing from the tip of storm pipes, seeping from soil along the banks and even bubbling out of manhole covers.
Williams runs a special unit of the N.C. Division of Water Quality that restores polluted or impaired mountain creeks. Both Richland and Scotts creek were flagged due to high bacteria counts associated with raw sewage.
Two years later, however, the once unhealthy levels of fecal coliform in the creeks are under control. Both creeks are popular for recreation. Children wade and splash in Richland Creek as it courses through the Waynesville Recreation Park. Fishermen can be seen from the greenway along its banks most afternoons.
At the mouth of Scott’s Creek in Sylva, a public park serves as a put-in for dozens of rafters and paddlers daily in the summer. Some swim and float in Scott’s Creek while waiting their turn to launch.
“It is wonderful for people who are waiting for their kayak and raft shuttles to cool themselves off without risk of getting some disease,” said Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River. “Based on the old data, it was unwise. Now it is safe.”
Figuring out where and how the raw sewage was getting into the creeks wasn’t simple, however. Sylva and Waynesville are both riddled with aging sewer lines that often spring underground leaks. The creeks are also plagued by failing private septic systems and even remnants of straight-piping — once a common practice in the early days of indoor plumbing when pipes simply ran through the yard and dumped into the creek out back.
Before Williams dons his waders for an in-stream survey, he spends weeks creating a map of potential hot spots. He takes periodic water samples the length of the creek — as well as side branches — and sends them off to the lab for analysis.
The results give him a snapshot of where the fecal coliform counts are highest.
“The numbers make it blatantly obvious that there is something going on in an area,” Williams said.
Along Richland Creek, Williams sampled 75 points from Lake Junaluska to its headwaters in Balsam.
Sometimes, finding the culprit on the ground wasn’t easy, however. Occasionally, Williams had to smoke them out.
Workers with the town of Waynesville’s sewer department would open up manholes and pump smoke into the lines while Williams and his team watched for it to seep up from the ground, revealing the spot in the line where the leak is.
Other times, they slipped a little green dye into the sewer line, while Williams stood in the creek looking for a green plume.
Along one stretch, high readings clearly indicated a hot spot but even the smoke and dye trick was unable to turn up a leak in the town’s lines. Not easily stumped, Williams cast about for other suspects and settled on a restaurant which sits along the creek. When his team flushed green dye down the restaurant’s toilets, sure enough, the creek turned green just seconds later.
Williams said the town of Waynesville spends $250,000 a year systematically repairing sewer lines. The town was willing and eager to work with Williams targeting the leaks and quickly fixed them.
In Sylva, Williams traced most of the problem to just two main offenders. One was an overflowing manhole. It wasn’t hard to spot the sewage bubbling out of it, Williams said. The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority patched the leak.
Along a side branch, Williams found a failing septic tank draining into the creek.
“It looked as if someone had rammed a pipe into the septic field to release the pressure and that was going into creek,” Williams said.
The homeowner didn’t have the money to fix the problem, however, but she was able to get financial assistance through the Waste Discharge Elimination Program, a state initiative to pinpoint and fix failing septic tanks.
Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek initially came to the state’s attention thanks to regular sampling done by volunteers from the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee.
“We petitioned the state to come down and take a look,” Clapp said.
The state got similar results, and Scott’s Creek was put on the impaired list in 2005.
“I had no idea at that point that it would be down to the level it is now,” Clapp said.
There are 490 miles of stream in the 19 western counties on the state’s list of impaired waters. There are several reasons a creek or river lands on the black list. One is bacteria from raw sewage. Another is high loads of sediment and erosion, or a deficiency of aquatic life.
The state hasn’t always been involved in fixing streams. It listed impaired waters but had no staff to do anything about the bad news.
“As far as a hands-on approach, we hadn’t done that so much,” Williams said.
In 2007, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources began its first-ever stream restoration program.
Richland and Scott’s creeks were the first in the 17-county area chosen to get help. It was a lucky break, since only a couple of waterways could be tackled at a time.
Priority goes to those with critical habitat for endangered species or popular creeks for recreation — which is why both Richland and Scott’s creeks were picked.
A 2007 article in The Smoky Mountain News about the public health risk at the rafting put-in at Scott’s Creek was a major factor in its selection, as well as lobbying by WATR, Williams said.
WATR volunteers often serve as the eyes and ears for the state water quality division, which doesn’t have the staff to sample all the streams that need monitoring. Haywood Waterways Association serves the same role in Haywood County.
This fall, WATR has partnered with Western Carolina University environmental science students to sample Savannah Creek, another hot spot in Jackson County for fecal coliform, and to do follow-up monitoring along Scott’s Creek to make sure high levels don’t resurface.
“It is exciting that WATR and our partners will be testing more streams to confirm clean water or to identify problems,” Clapp said.
Meanwhile in Waynesville, Richland Creek is still parked on the list of impaired waters. The reason: it lacks key aquatic species that a mountain stream should have.
Decades ago, pollution from Waynesville factories wiped out species. While the water is cleaner now, fish haven’t been able to repopulate Richland Creek.
“Lake Junaluska stands in the way as a barrier to fish migration, so we have had to physically pick the fish up and bring them up there,” Williams said.
Several species are being reintroduced and should improve Richland Creek’s biological integrity, and eventually get it off the list of impaired waters. The N.C. Wildlife Commission and Tennessee Valley Authority have helped with the reintroductions.
“Whatever it takes to fix the stream, we are trying to do,” Williams said. “We can never really say mission accomplished and go home and it is fixed. You have to keep monitoring forever.”
Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek show marked improvement following efforts in 2007 to cleanup sources of contamination
State standard 200
Average reading in 2005 2,150
Average reading in 2008 170
Average reading in 2009 100
Average reading in 2010 130
* Measured in fecal units per 100 milliliters of water. Samples taken at the mouth of Scott’s Creek just before its confluence with the Tuckasegee River. Data provided by Division of Water Quality.