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State of the Water 2017

On 1,006 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains in America, where dense forests and their lacy web of bright tributaries drain into federal storage lakes, there is in place a prototype of an essential science.
It’s a model for others large and small around the world doing water testing.
It’s not-for-profit, serving no pharmaceutical giant. Its data gathering is broad-based and uncompromisingly tough. And no matter what else is going on around it, it’s driven to achieve its mission – to accurately post true records of the quality of water.

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition


Water overran Houston, the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands this year, did the same to New Orleans in 2005 and to Lower Manhattan in 2015. Water is what arrays of very large telescopes are trying to discover on other planets. Water is what covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface. Water and the quality of life of all species upon this little globe, standing on legs and feet or swimming, go hand in hand.

Callie Moore is a trained water scientist with uncompromisingly tough research standards. She is coming up on 15 fruitful years now as executive director of Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (HRWC) incorporated in 1995 (other staff members preceded Moore) in a sprawling defined area of 1,006 square miles in four counties of two U.S. states, Georgia and North Carolina.

It’s a lot to cover with three staff members (the other two are Tony Ward and Raleigh Keagan) and all the volunteers they can challenge to go to the mountain streams and test. However, the truth is that the first payoffs after years of methodical, hard work are coming in.

“We have ten-plus years of data from twenty-one sites,” Moore said tonight as she delivered her annual address on the “State of the Water.” “Currently there are 55 actives sites” of testing, Moore added.

“We track all water quality and aquatic life data from all available sources… If you’re asking about our volunteer monitoring data parameters, here they are: water temperature, color, and clarity; dissolved oxygen; pH; conductivity (which lets us know when there’s excess sediment, high levels of nutrients or some other contaminant in the water); and E. coli (indicator of human pathogens).”

Those are facts that could be dismissed as just so much scientific obscurities. That is, could be unless you are a parent downstream from the federal storage lakes in Moore’s watershed. This water, when released systematically from dams, flows to the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers (and finally reaches Gulf of Mexico.) That’s a route having hundreds of freshwater intakes. So however underappreciated is the work of HRWC testers on cold stream banks applying strict rules from Moore, it is work that is vital for American health in the giant Mississippi basin.

The parameters of HRWC’s volunteers only mark the beginnings of the growing data stream. What I call a prototype of a proven water-data program is also one that has achieved quantifying many other indicators of the water quality condition, too. These other indicators include state impairment data (every two years); state regulatory agency biological data (every five years); state water chemistry data; other agency data as available; and the federal Tennessee Valley Authority lake data (every three years).

Even the term “water quality” is hard to pin down, I gather from Moore’s address here tonight. “When we say ‘water quality,’ we mean the whole system compared to what it should be,” Moore said. “And that is our standard.” She continued: “Instead of just looking at the physical and chemical properties of the water itself, when we talk about ‘water quality,’ we also consider the fish and other aquatic life that live in the rivers, lakes and streams compared with what we know should naturally be found there. And we look at the habitat for fish and aquatic life to see if it’s up to par. The standard for good water quality then incorporates all of these components of the system, not just whether the water itself is free of bacteria and other pollution.”

Sediment is “a number-one concern,” according to Moore, especially in creeks and rivers. Streams (like Fires Creek in Clay County, N.C.) that flow through watersheds that are almost completely forested and where there are very few human impacts like roads, developed areas and agriculture… these streams don’t get muddy when it rains. “Streams don’t have to be muddy when it rains. If we put in place measures to protect water quality and manage storm-water runoff, streams will carry much less sediment after rain events.”

A final aspect of this program making it a prototype for others to follow in other lands is that it is middle-of-the-road, averting extreme views. “We can construct new homes and buildings, harvest timber, manage livestock… do pretty much any activities we want on the land and still have good water quality,” Moore said. “That’s as long as we plan in advance and put measures in place to protect the rivers, lakes and streams.”

The payoffs are coming in more support, too. “So far in 2017, we’ve added 26 new residential households, 17 new businesses and trained 13 new water quality monitoring volunteers.” Moore said. “There’s no telling how many new folks have showed up to plant trees, remove invasive plants and pick up trash and so on at various workdays… but we can always use more!”


Apalachia Lake, Cherokee Co., N.C. Moore said: “Apalachia is often used by agencies as a reference lake for good water quality.” It is a run-of-river reservoir, meaning that water is passed through the reservoir without being stored long-term. Source: TVA.

The Hiwassee River and Hiwassee Lake in Cherokee County, N.C. Moore said: “They appear to be in good condition and safe for water-based recreation, although more volunteers are needed for monitoring.”

Nottely River, Union County, Ga. Moore said: “The river’s stretch above Nottely Lake routinely exceeds E. coli levels recommended for safe water-based recreation at more than one location.”

Lake Chatuge, Towns County, Ga. and Clay County, N.C. Moore said: “The levels of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in Lake Chatuge have been significantly reduced since the Watershed Plan was produced in 2007, so we moved the lake down to a medium level priority in 2018 from the high priority that it’s been since we started doing States of the Water.”


  1. Laurel Creek, at rim of the Valley River Mountains marking dividing line for Cherokee and Clay counties, N.C. This creek drains to Clay’s Rockhouse and that drains to Clay’s Fires.
  2. Rockhouse Creek
  3. Fires Creek
  4. Wolf Creek, tributary of Nottely River in Union County, Ga.
  5. Hiwassee River at Tusquittee Road, Clay Co.
  6. Hiwassee River below Mission Dam, Cherokee Co.
  7. Hightower Creek, tributary of Lake Chatuge, Towns County, Ga. and Clay County, N.C.
  8. Tusquitee Creek, Clay Co.
  9. Corn Creek, tributary of Brasstown Creek, Towns Co. and Clay Co.
  10. Bearmeat Creek, tributary of Lake Chatuge, Towns Co.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., was a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer/donor and recipient of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. Tom died on December 28, 2020.