Below the waterline: Fred’s impact on aquatic life remains to be seen
Eric Romaniszyn had been Haywood Waterways Association’s project manager for less than six months when the legendary floods of September 2004 tore through Clyde and Canton, challenging him to execute his new role addressing watershed health and education in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime weather event.
It took just 17 years for such flooding to prove itself at the minimum a twice-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
While testing is still needed to determine how the Aug. 17 floods in Haywood County have impacted water quality and aquatic ecosystems in the Pigeon River, Romaniszyn — Haywood Waterways’ executive director since 2010 — has some experience to draw on.
The 2004 flood happened right when Haywood Waterways was planning to hold its annual Kids in the Creek outdoor education event for Haywood County eighth graders. Due to severe weather, the organization postponed the field trip and relocated it from Canton to Lake Logan.
“It was hard to find organisms because the substrate had been so scoured,” Romaniszyn recalled. “Everything got washed downstream. Organisms can find refugia — places to hang out while the flooding is happening and be protected — but a lot of them floated, were scoured and washed downstream.”
This summer’s floodwaters associated with Tropical Storm Fred rose remarkably high and flowed remarkably swiftly. A gauge located on the East Fork Pigeon River about 5 miles downstream of the worst flooding reported waters that spiked from 8 feet to 16 feet in just two hours, peaking at 16.15 feet — an incredibly high reading for a river that’s commonly less than a foot deep.
When the water ripped through, it carried away entire houses, tore open propane tanks, mangled vehicles. It scoured soil from rock, transported boulders and stripped away grass.
As the river rose Aug. 17, the water turned an angry, chocolaty brown. Sunburst Trout photo
In the aftermath, search and rescue, then disaster relief, have been the top priorities. Romaniszyn hasn’t investigated water quality in the most-affected portions of the river yet, because he’s been trying to stay out of the way of those critical operations. But in the weeks and months to come, assessing those impacts and then addressing them will be critical tasks.
Romaniszyn expects to see profound changes to the numbers and types of creatures inhabiting the Pigeon — at least for a while.
“The system will recover of course over time,” he said. “Fish will come out of the tributaries. Bugs will hatch out from other tributaries, fly over and lay their eggs back in the Pigeon.”
But for now, the river is likely to be less lively than the stream anglers are used to fishing.
It also might be less clean. The chocolate brown floodwaters carried more than sediment, which has long been Haywood County’s number one pollutant. They also carried along whatever substances they picked up as they burst through walls and tore away soils — propane, sewage, motor oil and livestock waste are all likely to have swirled in the floodwaters.
“I heard of the banks eroding so badly that it got up close to septic systems,” said Romaniszyn. “It would not surprise me to hear of some septic systems that got completely taken out altogether.”
While he suspects that many of the pollutants are now sitting downstream in Waterville Lake, some could still be hanging out closer to Cruso.
“A lot of the nutrients, bacteria could get bound up in the sediments between Cruso all the way to Waterville Lake, so the issue might still be around for a few years as that material flushes its way down the system,” he said. “Same with any petroleum products that might have come from fuel tanks, propane tanks, things like that.”
How all that affects the fish — and the safety of eating them — is an open question. Trout, a favorite catch from the East Fork, are top predators in freshwater stream ecosystems, which means that any toxic materials eaten by their prey or their prey’s prey eventually end up accumulating in their own bodies.
But whether that’s happening at unhealthy levels as a result of the flood is unknown. Getting the answer would require collecting and testing fish tissue, and doing so at the right time. Even if such toxins are making their way into the trout’s organs, it’s possible that not enough time has passed since the flood for the magnitude of that impact to be measured accurately, Romaniszyn said.
Or, it might not be a big issue for Cruso, but rather more of a problem for downstream anglers.
“That material might not even be in Cruso,” said Romaniszyn. “It might be in Waterville Lake right now, in which case Cruso fish might be alright to eat, but Waterville Lake fish might not be.”
The short answer is that there is no answer yet — more testing is needed.
Meanwhile, Haywood Waterways is developing a to-do list to assist in the water quality side of flood recovery.
Debris collection is perhaps the most obvious, in-your-face item on the to do list. In addition to environmental impacts, trash deposits are a liability for a region that depends as heavily as Western North Carolina does on outdoor tourism . Over the coming months, Haywood Waterways plans to organize many river cleanups.
The floodwaters transported entire structures from their foundations to the riverbank. Holly Kays photo
“We get a lot of volunteers and resources to help with that all throughout the county,” Romaniszyn said. “So we’ll do some walking cleanups around bridges and places we can access but also plan on getting boats and floating down the river, grabbing what we can and what we can’t grab just marking it somehow to bring in some other resources to bring it out.”
By “what we can’t grab,” he means refrigerators, washing machines, fuel tanks, mattresses, trampolines — any of the countless unwieldy artifacts of the lives changed forever by the force of the now-docile Pigeon.
The other, longer-term, priority will be to restore the streambanks scoured by the floodwaters. The timeline and magnitude of those efforts will depend largely on the level of emergency funding that comes through. As of press time, a federal disaster declaration had not yet been signed.
“A lot of people like to build their home close to waterways and like access to the water, like to see the water. And that’s where we see a lot of issues,” said Romaniszyn. “You replace those trees with grass. Grass just does not do a good job of holding stream banks together. So out of this whole flood recovery I hope to see a lot more trees planted.”
That’s what Haywood Waterways helped do at Rivers Edge Park in Clyde. FEMA funding following the 2004 floods allowed the Town of Clyde to buy the 4.5-acre property after those floodwaters destroyed the homes that once stood there. In the years since, the park has been transformed into to a hedge against future flooding, planted with river cane and tree species chosen specifically for their ability to stabilize the soil and help absorb excess water.
According to Romaniszyn, the park did its job well on Aug. 17.
“They had a number of trees get pushed over, but there are also a lot of trees that withstood the damage, withstood the forces,” he said. “And they’re doing just fine. I think that’s a good testament to just the importance of trees.”
Fred will leave scars on the landscape for years to come, but the plant and animal communities that cover that landscape will recover, Romaniszyn said.
“When I’ve driven up into East Fork before all this flooding happened, every time I think back to the hurricanes, back to 2004, and you can’t even tell they were there,” he said. “The system has recovered so well.”
Clean the streams
Help clean up Haywood waterways during Big Sweep 2021, 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 18.
Organized by Haywood Waterways Association, this year’s event will include four locations for stream and roadside cleanups. Volunteers will meet at the town halls of Clyde and Maggie Valley, as well as at Vance Street pavilion and the PetSmart parking lot in Waynesville. Special events will be scheduled soon to help with cleanup efforts in the Canton, Bethel and Cruso areas.
Big Sweep is an annual countywide cleanup event that removes tons of trash from local waterways and roadways. Volunteers should be prepared to work in the sun and to get wet and dirty. Wear closed-toed shoes and long pants, and bring plenty of water. Trash bags, grabbers, gloves and refreshments will be provided.
Sponsored by Haywood Waterways, Haywood Community College, Town of Waynesville, Town of Clyde, Town of Maggie Valley, Haywood County Solid Waste and Tennessee Valley Authority.