LTWA presents updated State of the Streams Report at League of Women Voters meeting
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association (LTWA) presented an updated report at the League of Women Voters meeting summarizing 21 years of water quality and habitat trends.
According to this updated report by the LTWA, the stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Reservoir is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians. “The Little Tennessee is by any measure the healthiest major river in the Blue Ridge.” Therefore, it is essential that the preservation efforts of the LTWA, and the community, continue.
Jason Meador, a researcher with the LTWA, gave a brief history of the LTWA and the kind of work the organization does. Meador stated that the primary function of the LTWA is “to protect and restore the health of the waters of the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries upstream of the Fontana Reservoir through monitoring, habitat restoration, education and citizen action.” The Association focuses on the Tuckaseigee, Little Tennessee and Nantahala rivers and their tributaries.”
Meador then explained some of the changes that have taken place over the past 21 years since the last report. Meador spoke briefly about the various species within the streams. There are two different kinds of crayfish within the Little Tennessee River basin; one species is a more common variety and is found many places. However, the Little Tennessee River Crayfish is endemic to this particular area, meaning that it is only found within the Little Tennessee River basin. Other species that are endemic to the Little Tennessee are such fish as the greenfin darter, warpain shiner, and southern brook trout. The LTWA reports that “everywhere is important, but areas with high endemism are particularly important to conserve.” This is the reason the LTWA is dedicated to preserving the Little Tennessee River watershed. The LTWA has documented 47 different species of native fish and approximately 10 native freshwater mussel species within the Tennessee River system.
The LTWA report also notes that there are some invasive species of fish that have become a part of, and changed, the river’s natural ecology. For example, the Asian Clam was first noted in the Little Tennessee in the 1990’s, however, their population grew very rapidly. It is still unclear what correlation there may ne, if any, between the Asian Clam population and the decline of native mussels, but the LTWA states that “their abundance could inhibit recoveryof native populations.” Other species like the brow trout are native to Europe, the rainbow trout are from the Pacific coast and the redbreast sunfish are from the piedmont and coastal plain. Meador explained that these exotic species of fish were not indigenous to the Little Tennessee River basin until they were brought in to stock streams.
Long time researcher for the LTWA, Bill McLarney, said “the biggest problem is habitat modification.” McLarney cited an example from parts of Scaly Mountain. He said that it was previously a major agricultural area and that it had the worst erosion problem east of the Mississippi. However, the LTWA got involved and helped to bring that area up from a fair category to good.
Through biomoitoring, the LTWA has devised a system called The Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) to “rate” streams in five different categories to calculate an overall score of the condition of the stream. Ratings range from excellent to very poor. Of the 71 streams within the watershed territory, only one, Needmore, received an excellent rating. 21 streams were rated good, 28 were rated fair, 18 were rated poor and 3 were rated very poor.
The Little Tennessee watershed has had a history of misuse to the river. Barbara McRae, editor of The Franklin Press and a local historian, wrote an article entitled “The Little Tennessee River: Two Centuries of Use, Abuse and Restoration” which was included in the LTWA report. In that article, McRae details how the early settlers began exploiting the natural resources of the watershed area. She cites such things as the railroads, logging, mechanized factories and industry, and poor agricultural practices as all having negative, lasting impacts on the land and the river. However, McRae also says that people have begun to turn that trend around. Such organizations as the Soil Conservation Service and the LTWA, as well as the citizens, have taken steps to ensure the conservation of the Little Tennessee. McRae concludes, “the valley today is a long way from the ‘natural’ state of 1819, but it is also a long way from the degraded state of 1913.”
According to Meador, there have also been more restoration projects since the last report. For example, in 2009 there was a damaged culvert at Watauga Creek where the water was going under the culvert and making it impossible for some fish to be able to go upstream. The LTWA received funding to remove the culvert and replace it with a bridge which allowed for better water flow and fish passage. And in early 2011, the LTWA replaced another culvert on Bradley Creek that was causing flooding with a bridge. They also stabilized the bank side with biomatting and live staking.
Meador said that the previous report from 1990 had become outdated because it was before hurricanes Ivan and Francis, before the Fruit of the Loom plant in Dillard shut down, before the Asian clam population went up, before the drought of 2007, and the acquisition of the Needmore Game Lands by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. All of these things were a factor in changes to the Little Tennessee watershed.
At the end of the presentation, Meador opened the floor to questions. Meador and McLarney, answered questions from members of the League. In the end, McLarney concluded that more regulations are not what is needed. “Regulations are not the main problem. The problem is that the regulations are not taken seriously or that economic concerns are considered more important.”