For two decades, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association in Franklin has been monitoring the health of the river’s water basin from north Georgia to Fontana Lake.
Last week, the group released a State of the Streams report, showcasing both its work and what has been found over the years, particularly the trends from 2002 through 2010. The unveiling took place at a noon luncheon of the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, with about 30 people in attendance.
Overall in the upper Little Tennessee River watershed, two worrisome points stand out, according to the report. Monitoring of threatened and endangered species in the mainstream below Franklin suggests that the decline of native mussels is long term and not just cyclical; and a fish species, the Wounded Darter, has almost completely disappeared from the Cullasaja River.
The good news? The most significant development was the closing in 2006 of the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabun Gap, Ga., which the group said accounted for more than 95 percent of the total permitted industrial discharges to the entire watershed.
While the closing was hard on those whose livelihoods were dependent on the plant (30 percent of the workforce was from Macon County), benefits were almost immediately visible in the downstream ecosystem. This included the recovery of riverweed, an aquatic plant of the Little Tennessee.
Additionally, in Highlands, macroinvertebrates from Mill Creek are showing slow but continual recovery following the late 1990s shutdown of the Highlands sewer plant.
The condition of the river in the now-protected Needmore area (since 1999) also suggests that positive actions have, at the very least, “counterbalanced” negative trends. The Needmore tract, purchased from Duke Energy to protect it from development through a combination of private and public funding, has been under management by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2002.
“Thirteen miles of free-flowing river, no houses or bridges — that’s a pretty unique thing in this part of the world. It’s a really exceptional piece of river,” Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist who has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for at least two decades, said of the Needmore stretch of the Little Tennessee River.
Additionally, “we are relatively blessed that we don’t have a lot of point-source pollution,” McLarney said. “Habitat modification and sedimentation is the biggest problem here … that’s what we need to focus the most attention on if we want to see healthier streams.”
Jason Meador, the watershed program coordinator for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said the group focuses on a “holistic approach.” The staff and the many volunteers involved don’t just study fish, they also look at and study everything involved in a healthy watershed.
That’s also involved restoration projects, such as taking out culverts and replacing them with bridges, such as the group did on Bradley Creek. The culverts — essentially places where a stream is forced into a giant pipe to pass under a road — often block fish from being able to travel freely up and down tributaries, particularly if the culvert is crumbling, Meador said.
Additionally, the culverts often can’t handle big storm flows, flushing excess sediment.
Where is the Little Tennessee watershed?
The upper Little Tennessee watershed covers 450 square miles of forests, fields, towns and communities in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.
With headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia at the confluence of Billy and Keener creeks, the Little Tennessee River flows north and northwest for 55 miles, unimpeded for its entire length except for Porters Bend Dam, which forms the relatively tiny (250 acre) Lake Emory in the town of Franklin. Before reaching Lake Emory, the river makes its way through a flat, wide valley, dropping less than 50 feet of elevation in more than 10 miles of channel length. Here, the valley is defined by the Nantahala mountains to the west and the Fishhawk mountains and Blue Ridge escarpment to the east.
The stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Lake is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians, making it unique among the Blue Ridge rivers to have escaped much of the industrial pollution that has degraded so many other rivers in the region, according to the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.