Lake issue raises complex questions

To the Editor:

Thank you for the thoughtful, informative and balanced article on Lake Emory in Franklin. I would like to put my comments in more context. I do this knowing full well that the worst response a biologist can make in discussions of environmental management is “it’s complex.” Sorry, folks, but this is complex.

My concern over the toxic substances which may be contained in deep sediment layers is just that, a concern. As the article points out, studies of some aspects of sediment toxicity are ongoing. I think it would be fair to report that these studies have yet to reach firm conclusions – it’s complex. My point is that, especially given the importance of the river below Porters Bend Dam for a suite of sensitive and in some cases endangered mussel species, the highest possible degree of caution is in order.

There is another Lake Emory pollution issue, which also rates consideration. Franklin’s municipal wastewater treatment system discharges directly into Lake Emory some distance above the dam. Below that point, all the way through the Needmore Game Lands to Fontana, there are no permitted point source discharges – surely a major factor in the persistence of one of the healthiest large river reaches in the Southeast.

Essentially the river benefits from Lake Emory serving as a free tertiary treatment facility. What would be the effect if all the nutrients from treated effluent were passed quickly to the lower river instead of being acted on by the still waters, sediments and myriad critters of Lake Emory?

Shirley Ches’ perception of the sediment buildup is understandable, and certainly downed trees and other debris serve to trap sediment, sometimes in inconvenient places, but sedimentation was a problem in Lake Emory long before 1993. It is a fact that all artificial lakes, absent dredging, have a finite life span. No matter how deep the reservoir at the outset, and even if the upstream watershed is a pristine wilderness, reservoirs will eventually fill up with sediment.

Today, thanks to the combination of a changing economy  and the efforts of organizations such as the Macon Soil and Water Conservation District, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, as well as individual land owners, the situation appears to be much better – Lake Emory is probably filling up more slowly.  But we still don’t know how quickly a dredged Lake Emory would fill and without that information the cost-benefit aspect of dredging remains decidedly fuzzy.

I share and applaud Quintin Ellison’s asthetic perception of the islands and hidden channels of Lake Emory – a haven for waterfowl. What has been accomplished there is accidental mitigation for some wetlands lost to “development.” And yet, neither they nor a deeper, “cleaner” Lake Emory are natural or stable.

Here is where the matter gets tricky for me as a conservation biologist. Taking the long view, I consider all dams and the reservoirs they create as environmental insults to rivers. A river achieves its full natural potential only when it is continuous and can serve as a corridor for up and downstream migration of fish and other animals. I cannot help but wonder if some of the fish species which today are found below Porters Bend Dam but not above were present upstream before the river was dammed. I cannot help but imagine how beautiful the Little Tennessee must have been at the natural drop the engineers chose for the dam site.  

In my Utopian future, Lake Emory and others of its kind would not exist. People in Minnesota would recreate on lakes, but North Carolinians would swim, fish, hunt ducks and paddle on rivers. And there is a constituency for the removal of Porters Bend Dam, just as there was for the Dillsboro Dam.

On the other hand, my realistic side, based on nearly 30 years of living and working on the Little Tennessee, has always inclined to the opinion that on balance, Lake Emory does more good than harm.  If that be the case, then the question becomes “how best to manage Lake Emory” – a question which encompasses dredging and a great deal more. It’s complex.

Bill McLarney


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