An exacting, uncompromising scientist and her staff doggedly interpolate data from disparate sources in order to reach accurate conclusions. This they do as they measure water quality – a key indicator for how healthy is a place – in a U.S. watershed of especially rare beauty, rimmed by low peaks at the top of Georgia and in far western tip of North Carolina
By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition
NEAR HAYESVILLE, N.C., AT HINTON CENTER ON LAKE CHATUGE, OCT. 30, 2018 –
The colors of fall always strike me as more subtle, profound and moving when in fall foliage rather than on, say, house paint or a t-shirt. On this day when experience tells me the foliage here is at its peak, then the next thought is how it’s ablaze across mountain slopes towering over four sizable TVA reservoirs. Then the human interloper – that’s what we are – muses soberly that this is a good escape from what has recently seemed an incessantly discordant world.
The next thought crossing a churning mind is that you’re at a locale of such beauty (and threats to same) that it would be good if someone lived here who has proven expertise and training in natural science to answer the big question: is all this splendor going to last?
My good news for the nation is that there is such a person. Callie Moore, 16-year executive director of the 23-year-old non-profit Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, has university degrees and more importantly, a dogged, proven commitment and dedication to apply, in what is a choice U.S. environmental setting, her training and expertise gained at Western Carolina and Indiana U.
Moore’s annual State of the Water reports at various sites across this watershed covering four counties in two states is fast becoming the top environmental event each year up here.
I didn’t promise her findings that I now attempt to relate are about place names in the mountains here that are familiar across the nation. However, please trust me and this 12-year-old volunteer column by someone retired from newspapers when I say places mentioned here are beloved by residents permanent and seasonal. Now there follow here some examples of Moore and HRWC’s conclusions about the state of this water.
LAKE CHATUGE, made by TVA and filled in 1942, extends upstream from an earthen dam 150 feet high and 3,336 feet long, creating flood storage of 62,000 acre feet. This attracts homebuyers and retirees as it makes a strong argument for being most scenic of all in the cluster of TVA reservoirs here.
Its happy state-of-the water fact from Moore is that it has had a 7.3-point improvement in TVA’s ecological health rating for the lake since publication of an action plan for it by, yes, Moore and HRWC. The then sole commissioner of Towns County and then mayor of Hiawassee (yes, the spellings differ from N.C. to Ga.) embraced this work plan immediately and set to work on it.
FIRES CREEK is the cleanest stream in this watershed. (See table) This Moore and HRWC determined from their years of water-quality tests by their volunteers who work active monitoring sites around the watershed.
A bit more about Fires Creek, please. It is the glittering gem of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fires Creek Recreation area and favorite of residents and tourists for picnicking, wading, fishing, hiking and camping.
During the last decade, thanks to a courageous stand by organizations such as HRWC and Southern Environmental Law Center, Fires Creek withstood a brazen try by some western N.C. residents to gain road access to their 50-acre national forest inholding (meaning private parcel somehow never taken into Nantahala National Forest) and there build, they said, four primitive cabins.
The never-incorporated Laurel Creek Property Owners Association’s in effect national-forest subdivision would have been high above Fires Creek at its tributary Laurel Creek, at the rim of the Valley River Mountains. After years of disputes, the landowners finally agreed to sell and the Stanback family of headache-powder fame donated the needed funds for a land trust to purchase the property and ultimately transfer it to the Forest Service.
LITTLE BRASSTOWN CREEK splits Ridgefield Farm of Brasstown which produces Brasstown Beef (for stores including Whole Foods recently acquired by Amazon). It and its Angus and Braunvieh make for a bovine landmark of this watershed. It’s a few miles upstream from the popular John C. Campbell Folk School.
In 2006, the Whitmire family donated to the same land trust a conservation easement protecting 696 acres. Such an arrangement makes a place permanently undevelopable and its owners get tax breaks for pledging to protect the conservation values of the property forever.
Ridgefield Farm contains most of the headwaters of Little Brasstown Creek. There’s myriad fenced pasture sections to which portions of the herd are systematically moved. In 2017, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition penned a letter to Steve Whitmire because the pastures adjoining the creek (where over 20 years more than $850,000 of public monies have been invested by HRWC and private landowners) had been denuded and in the winter time of much rain and snow, all were seas of mud running downhill to the creek, a Brasstown Creek tributary.
“We haven’t talked about this publicly before,” Callie Moore said at State of the Water tonight. “We are now.”
“Our board of directors most recently contacted Mainspring Conservation Trust who holds the conservation easement… and the farm has plans to make improvements.”
BELL CREEK in Towns County was the only waterway moved into the highest priority category for 2019. This creek is an anomaly in an otherwise improving Lake Chatuge watershed. E. coli levels are consistently very high as measured by monthly Adopt-A-Stream monitoring volunteers. HRWC has as its first order of business to find out what the sources of the bacteria are and to assist landowners with improving water quality there.
A generation of water-minded leaders
A satisfying disclosure of State of the Water again this time is that HRWC will continue the university-students alternative spring breaks. I’ve looked into the faces of groups of these young people from universities from Florida almost to Canada. In those faces I’ve seen what I think are future Congress members, governors and mayors. Instead of going to Atlantic coast resort beaches for their spring break from classes, they’ve elected to find HRWC environmental conservation work. There’s plenty to do including restoration of riparian buffers where stream-side vegetation has been unwisely removed. Riparian buffers filter out pathogens, nutrients and excess sediment.
To choose altruism instead of hell-raising, to commit to do conservation work in the few days of their needed breaks, may implant in many an undergrad a purpose for later life. The HRWC alternative spring break program in Georgia and North Carolina is a giant setback for distillers, markets and convenience stores, and to motels and restaurants in the resort beach areas. I say let it continue to be so.
HRWC in 2019 also will continue hosting field days for kids; the improving of Little Brasstown Creek; working with Young Harris College in Georgia to improve Corn Creek; and continue being a partner of USFS North Carolina ongoing development of 20-year plans for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.
“In some cases, our priorities are limited by what we have the ability to do,” said Moore, meaning the riparian improvements need private property owners’ permission.
HRWC began more than two decades ago with founders’ optimistic and naïve announcements how the four county governments will faithfully, every July at start-up of their fiscal years, make donations to HRWC. Half no longer do. In addition, soon after the non-profit’s start-up, a political party long out of power gained it and proceeded to cut by 90 percent the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
“We have become much more dependent on private donors and can no longer depend on grants from government agencies,” Moore said.
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.