Lenoir News-Topic Aug. 4, 2005

State seeking a cleaner Lower Creek

By CAT FOWLER, News-Topic Staff

Thursday, August 4, 2005 8:29 AM EDT

The Lower Creek Watershed is impaired. That means, that for 40 years, the creeks and tributaries of this community have consistently fallen short of water quality regulations.

The waters are polluted because they are filled with extraneous amounts of silt, sand, metals and various chemicals, all of which are foreign to the natural flow of streams.

All of these bodies of water flow into Lake Rhodhiss, this community's drinking water supply. And over time, Lake Rhodhiss has become impaired as well.

In an effort to improve this situation, crews from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, Inc. and the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP) set out to test the waters.

Already having gathered water samples, June of this year marked the next course of action to examine the physical characteristics of 80 water sites in the 100 square miles that is the Lower Creek Watershed.

Andrea Leslie, an aquatic biologist with the EEP who is also the Western Watershed Planner, said this step was designed for three main reasons. The first, to look at the habitat that is available for aquatic organisms.

"The reason you look at what types of aquatic organisms are in the streams is because they are measure of how healthy a stream is," said Leslie. "These organisms are very sensitive to pollution and they spend a large part of their life in the water. If there is a lack of these types of organisms, then that is a good gauge of how impaired the water is."

The crews also examined the stability of the streams. Here, they took note of the water banks' conditions. In order for a stream's banks to be stable, vegetation is needed. Without it, erosion is more likely to occur because there is nothing to hold the soil in place.

A stable bank also means that the height of the bank is flush with the height of the stream. If the two heights are level, then when a stream floods, water can seap out onto the land. In other words, the water has a place to go. But, if the banks are higher than the stream when flooding occurs, the raging waters keep flowing downstream, picking up greater amounts of pollutants as they go.

The third item that the crews looked at in their testing was the erosion itself. They looked at how much had occurred, if any, and what was the probability of it happening in general.

After venturing out to all 80 sites, Leslie said that they found that the biggest problems were in the urban streams of Spainhour Creek, Zack's Fork Creek, Blair Fork Creek and Lower Creek.

"Ideally, you want a mixture of gravel, sand and a diversity of depths in a stream," said Leslie.

These streams, however, failed to have such a mixture. Instead, the bottom of these streams were covered with merely sand and silt.

To make matters worse, these areas contained few aquatic organisms, further demonstrating the unhealthy state of the waters, according to the data.

But, what will they do with all the information they gathered?

Leslie, along with several others, are working to analyze every single report from every single site. They will bring all of the information together to issue one large report that will show exactly where the biggest problems are and what those problems are as well, because right now, the idea that the biggest problems are in the urban streams is just a guess, Leslie said.

Once the report is made, the plan is for the crews to meet with a technical advisory committee that is composed of members of Caldwell and Burke Counties. Together, the group will create a plan to address the problems and figure out where to focus their efforts.

Leslie and Mike Struve, the Water Quality Administrator with the Western Piedmont Council of Governments, met with Caldwell County Commissioners and the City of Lenoir this week.

"We're meeting with them so that we can get them into the loop," said Leslie. "We want to inform them of what we are doing. We would like to get their support and we would also show them what ways our work can benefit them."

Ultimately, the long term plan is to begin a series of stream restorations. Leslie wanted to reiterate that they will only do restoration on streams that owners volunteer their land for. They do not work on areas that land owners don't approve of.

Leslie also said that she wanted people to understand that this effort is about improving the water quality in this area and trying to understand the different water quality issues. She said that the group wants to come up with a plan that will actually be implemented. The plan won't be just talked about, it will be done.

For more information on the Watershed Plan go to http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/eep or www.wpcog.org/lowercreek.