Perspectives Online

Running Water. 'Slow the mudflow' is the mantra as experts help teach water-quality lessons in western counties. By Art Latham.

The Rocky Broad River (above) flows through Hickory Nut Gorge to Lake Lure, with some water quality assistance from Cooperative Extension.
Photo by Art Latham

Water quality has deteriorated so much in in western North Carolina that Buncombe County's erosion control officer received almost 250 complaints between July and October last year, says a January story in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Experts say the two reasons for water quality's decline are increasing erosion and stormwater runoff, both apparently due to increased development. Three major mountain watersheds - the French Broad, Watauga and New - are in the grips of major development.

But communities can learn how to improve water quality. North Carolina Cooperative Extension, partnering with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, have produced and presented water-quality related education programs for years.

Since water-quality problems aren't confined to Buncombe County - more than one stream makes up a watershed; more than one watershed makes up a river system - Extension education and action programs are spread across the craggy mountain slopes like laurel.

On the main stem of the French Broad River at the Champion Park River Access in downtown Rosman (top photo), stream bank restoration is in the beginning stages. Before long, its results should resemble those of this Banner Elk water quality restoration project (bottom photo) along the Shawneehaw River, where in-stream crossvanes and streamside buffers are among the best management practices.
Photo by Art Latham
For example, the Citizen-Times story was linked to several audio files by Diane Silver, Extension agent for water quality in Henderson County, who also writes newspaper columns, gives radio interviews and posts information to a Web site. And her informational two-and-a-half minute public service water-quality announcements alternate with those of other Extension personnel on WHKP radio.

Silver, who coordinates the Mud Creek Watershed Restoration Project, said, "Water pollution is not necessarily purple water from upstream or rivers catching fire. Stormwater runoff is not a high-profile environmental issue, yet. It's not 'save the whales' or elegant cheetahs, but we're going to be hearing more about it."

That's guaranteed by the federal Phase II Stormwater Guidelines which, since 2003, have required smaller towns not covered in Phase I to obtain stormwater operating permits to prove they are EPA guideline-compliant.

Due at least in part to Phase II, enforced by state departments of natural resources, Asheville is trying to enforce sediment regulations, along with several other mountain communities and counties with sediment and erosion control programs. These include Avery, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Watauga counties.

Reinforcing those efforts, Extension teaches how to deal with water-quality problems through a series of research-based techniques called "best management practices" or BMPs, said Silver.

A rock vane BMP, beside the canoe, helps to keep the flow of water centered in a Henderson County mountain stream (top photo). In Watauga County (bottom photo), stream restoration activities include Banner Elk's Kids in the Creek program.
Top Photo Courtesy N.C Cooperative Extension
Bottom Photo Courtesy Wendy Patroprsty
"We usually get about an inch of water, not buckets, from storms," she recently told a WNCW-Asheville radio audience. "But that amount is very important. That first inch washes pollutants - heavy metals, oils, salts, petroleum products, lawn fertilizers pet wastes and a lot more - directly into streams. Anything on the land can end up in the water from that first flush of runoff.

"What's more, stormwater runoff does not go to a water treatment plant; it bypasses the urban waste water systems that help deal with other pollutants and goes straight to our streams. We don't want to point fingers here," Silver said, "but development is one of the drivers of this process: malls, housing developments, parking lots, rooftops, driveways, sidewalks, streets; all create impervious surfaces that don't let the water percolate down naturally, so the runoff percentage is much higher."

Infiltrated water can sink to tree roots; flow sideways underground in shallow groundwater to some surface waters, a stream or spring; or sink even deeper - 50 feet or more - to recharge aquifers, the source of well water.

"But the more development, the more those average everyday rains cause flooding, even when it's not Hurricane Ivan," she said.

"Our traditional strategy for managing that water is funneling it to grates in streets and parking lots, then piping it to nearest creek," Silver said, but 'slow the flow' is the goal of all BMPs. Slow it, then redirect it to underground where it used to go under natural conditions."

Unslowed runoff also exacerbates "streambank scouring," a process that under high-speed runoff causes streams to cut deeper into their channels, leaving them looking like deep gullies. Erosion of those steep stream banks contributes sediment, causing turbidity, so the water looks chocolate or orange, she said.

Watershed Education Network team members Jon Calabria (left), Diane Silver, Eric Caldwell and Wendy Patoprsty meet in Asheville.
Photo by Art Latham
Extension water-quality specialists practice what they preach. Silver built and maintains a rain garden water retention BMP at her county Extension center that drains about half its roof, helping to keep that water out of nearby Mud Creek during the first rain flush.

"This demonstration rain garden provides a living example of what one looks like - how it blends nicely into the landscape and how it functions," Silver said. "We also offer workshops to train our Master Gardeners and local landscapers on how to design and install rain gardens. They, in turn, can assist homeowners in Henderson County who wish to plant a rain garden on their own property."

Silver also helps landowners mitigate currently eroding streams that contribute to degrading aquatic habitat. She launched a program in 2005 to train local landscapers in BMPs for small-scale, backyard stream stabilization techniques.
"Many local contractors use rip-rap, wire fencing and concrete reinforcement to stabilize eroding stream banks, 'old school' practices that degrade stream habitat and aren't aesthetically pleasing. They fail to mimic natural conditions of healthy streams," she said.

Assisted by Cliff Ruth, Extension area specialized agent for commercial horticulture, and BAE Department water-quality specialists Dr. Greg Jennings, Dan Clinton and Lara

Rozzell, Silver coordinated the "Stream Doctor" training program to increase what she calls "new-school" practices: bank re-vegetation, reinforcement using bio- or photo-degradable mats and in-stream structures to redirect stream flow into the channel's center.

Recently, Silver received a $63,000 N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources grant to expand the training to include hands-on restoration work side-by-side with Extension specialists, who'll mentor trainees as they take on their first independent stream repair projects. She also recently received a three-year DENR grant to help landowners in the Lewis Creek sub-watershed - a Mud Creek sub-tributary - plant riparian vegetation for erosion control and reduce pesticide use throughout the sub-watershed.

"Addressing degradation sources high in the watershed's headwaters is the first step in a long process of improving Mud Creek and removing it from the state's impaired waters list," she said.

Silver also educates several public organizations, serving on the Environmental Educators of North Carolina board and as an Environmental and Conservation Organization adviser. She organizes Henderson County's Kids in the Creek program, and provides technical assistance to the local Adopt-a-Stream program.

She's also is a member of Extension's North Carolina Watershed Education Network. Through WEN, Extension agents and specialists work with College researchers and partners on educational programs to meet local water-resource needs, increasing knowledge among those who help protect our state's natural resources.

Up the Blue Ridge Mountains to the northeast, in Avery and Watauga counties, Wendy Patoprsty's water-quality education efforts also are obvious. Patoprsty, whose position, like Silver's, is grant-funded, estimates she rounds up more than 2,500 volunteer work-hours each year for her projects.

Patoprsty, Extension agent for natural resources, also pushes educational programs such as Kids in the Creek and Watershed Watch, both with volunteer help and partners such as county boards of education, conservation groups and public officials.

She sees her job as a sort of big three-hearted river, to paraphrase a Hemingway title: Its tributaries are education, on-the-ground (or in-the-water) activities and fundraising.

Like Silver, Patoprsty generates good press: Stories about her programs appear regularly in the online High Country News and the Mountain Times as she repeats Extension water-quality anti-mud mantra.

In one story, a Mountain Times reporter called her "one of the few people in our area with a serious scientific knowledge of the Watauga River, from its beginnings at Beech Creek Bog to its final destination in Watauga Lake in eastern Tennessee."

Last summer, Washington State University videographers visited Boone to film part of a three-state documentary, "Stormwater Management from a Watershed Perspective," which featured several of Patoprsty's projects: "Kids in the Creek"; a constructed wetland at Valle Crucis and a Watauga River Conservation Partners World Wildlife Fund grant project with high school students in Banner Elk and Boone to install storm drain medallions that read "No dumping/drains to creek." Last October in Boone, she publicly screened the documentary, which also was viewed by an estimated national and international audience of 4,000, she said.

The popular Kids in the Creek curriculum, approved by Avery and Watauga county boards of education, gets more than 2,000 youngsters outdoors and often into the water each year to learn stream conservation along the Watauga, which begins at the base of Grandfather Mountain, and on other streams.

With the help of costumed volunteers Dick and Joan Hearn from the Watauga River Conservation Partners, who act the parts of "the Stream Doctor'" and "Mandy the Mayfly," the kids study stream biology. Through several education stations set up along streams and in the classroom, elementary and middle-school students learn hands-on approaches to assessing a stream's overall health, as well as how to help protect and repair streams. Their activities cover such topics as watersheds, riparian canopies, macroinvertebrates and pollutants that may enter the stream through activities in their watershed.

"After collecting insects out of the stream," Patoprsty said recently, "we count and identify the kind of bugs we have found and can then determine the condition of the stream. A wide variety of insects live in a healthy stream."

The kids learn to do chemical testing for factors such as dissolved oxygen, pH and temperature. They do macroinvertebrate counts and learn from a simulated cutaway earth section that uses colored dyes to show groundwater flow principles. Also, a small-scale model town called an "enviroscape," through which water runs demonstrates how water quality can be impacted: Cocoa powder and spray bottle water show how fertilizers and other chemicals, manure and mud enter our waterways.

She tells the kids: "The water we have on the earth today is the same water that was here when the earth came into existence. It is a resource that can't be created; therefore we need to be good stewards of it."

Thanks to the Watershed Watch program, volunteer monitors have collected data six times a year at 10 Watauga River watershed sites since 1998. Patoprsty teaches them how to monitor the bottom of streams and other water bodies, home to most aquatic life; how to establish baseline data, show timeline trends in macroinvertebrate populations, engage citizen scientists and provide information sharing among them, their communities and land-management agencies. Patoprsty also coordinates the program, which recently was involved in assessing the health of Mollie's Branch before the installation of a demonstration micro-hydroelectric power system.

Program partners include N.C. State University, Extension, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Watauga River Conservation Partners, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development, the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Program and the Watauga/Avery Soil and Water Conservation District.

Last year, Patoprsty, with other water-quality specialists - Wendi Hartup, area environmental agent for Forsyth and Stokes counties, and Jason Zink of BAE, who works out of the N.C. Arboretum with the French Broad River Watershed Education Training Center team - taught rain garden installation procedures and guided students through a hands-on demonstration to create a rain garden BMP on Boone Chamber of Commerce President Dan Myer's property.

And last September, in a Big Sweep effort, she coordinated about 94 volunteers, who pulled almost a ton of trash from Watauga County streams.

In December, she coordinated Boone, Appalachian State University and the Ecosystem Enhancement Program to encourage completion of the streamside Boone Greenway project, which had been unfunded, leaving Boone responsible for completing the second phase. Meanwhile, the involved streams had developed eroding banks, one with a 10-foot vertical drop.

Patoprsty encouraged BMPs such as sloping back stream banks, planting native vegetation and installing a few grade-control BMP structures, such as cross-vanes and J-hooks to prevent further erosion by helping keep high-velocity water in the channel's center, and to help create pool and riffle biological habitats.

She also works on several wetlands, including one with the Watauga River Watershed Project - part of the College's Water Quality Group and Cooperative Extension - which created a 2.5-acre wetland at the Valle Crucis Conference Center with N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund monies. The former pasture now teems with aquatic life and more than 30 plant species, including 5,000 native plants, and is preserved under a conservation easement.

Patoprsty and other BAE faculty and WEN members such as Drs. Jennings and Bill Hunt regularly teach seminars on BMPs and low-impact development.

Near the French Broad River's source, Eric Caldwell, Transylvania County Extension director and a water-quality specialist, is happy to see area greenhouses crank up their riparian plant production. He credits the work of Cliff Ruth, who oversees several projects that encourage growers.

"Local growers now purchase plant materials such as live stakes from local landowners and sell plant materials to use in riparian restoration projects statewide. That's economic development," Caldwell said.

Caldwell also works extensively with Jon Calabria, landscape architect and French Broad River WET Center coordinator. The center provides educational programming for landowners, concerned citizens, natural resource managers and public officials in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe, Haywood and Madison counties. Among other projects, Calabria, Ruth and others installed a stormwater wetland at the Plant Professional Landscape Garden at the arboretum.

As water conservation becomes mandatory in some locales, generating the need for more research-tested development techniques, water-quality experts are promoting two stormwater practices to help meet newer design goals: green roofs and water harvesting through cisterns.

At a June symposium, Calabria will lead cistern and green roof irrigation site tours in Asheville and Hunt will present College research results on both BMP types. Following Extension's favored "hands-on" approach, participants will partially design both a green roof and a water-harvesting system.

In other water-quality actions, Transylvania Extension also:

• Has published two educational brochures.
• Has implemented l stormwater BMP demonstrations - including rain gardens - at four county sites.
• Will stage educational seminars and field days.

April's Equine Environmental Field Day features Extension personnel discussing and building pasture-management, manure-composting, stream-fencing, heavy-use-stream-protection and watering-system BMPs. In May: daylong "Vision Transylvania" natural resources forum. Leaders tour sites, learn more about natural resource issues and BMPs; and a six-workshop, homeowner-targeted workshop series on home environments; Also in May, construction backed by a $30,000 DENR grant begins on stream-bank stabilization in high-use Pisgah National Forest; it also will double as a BAE contractor training.

Mountain watersheds are far-flung, but Extension water-quality programs have a long reach.