Ed Williams is an expert when it comes to spotting the telltale signs of sewage seeping into creeks.
“You get an eye and a nose for it,” Williams said. “You put the boots on and get in. You just start at the mouth and walk up, keeping your eyes open and looking for funny smells, too.”
Williams has put his reconnaissance skills to work along the primary urban creeks running through Waynesville and Sylva. He’s found sewage oozing from the tip of storm pipes, seeping from soil along the banks and even bubbling out of manhole covers.
Williams runs a special unit of the N.C. Division of Water Quality that restores polluted or impaired mountain creeks. Both Richland and Scotts creek were flagged due to high bacteria counts associated with raw sewage.
Two years later, however, the once unhealthy levels of fecal coliform in the creeks are under control. Both creeks are popular for recreation. Children wade and splash in Richland Creek as it courses through the Waynesville Recreation Park. Fishermen can be seen from the greenway along its banks most afternoons.
At the mouth of Scott’s Creek in Sylva, a public park serves as a put-in for dozens of rafters and paddlers daily in the summer. Some swim and float in Scott’s Creek while waiting their turn to launch.
“It is wonderful for people who are waiting for their kayak and raft shuttles to cool themselves off without risk of getting some disease,” said Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River. “Based on the old data, it was unwise. Now it is safe.”
In the water
Figuring out where and how the raw sewage was getting into the creeks wasn’t simple, however. Sylva and Waynesville are both riddled with aging sewer lines that often spring underground leaks. The creeks are also plagued by failing private septic systems and even remnants of straight-piping — once a common practice in the early days of indoor plumbing when pipes simply ran through the yard and dumped into the creek out back.
Before Williams dons his waders for an in-stream survey, he spends weeks creating a map of potential hot spots. He takes periodic water samples the length of the creek — as well as side branches — and sends them off to the lab for analysis.
The results give him a snapshot of where the fecal coliform counts are highest.
“The numbers make it blatantly obvious that there is something going on in an area,” Williams said.
Along Richland Creek, Williams sampled 75 points from Lake Junaluska to its headwaters in Balsam.
Sometimes, finding the culprit on the ground wasn’t easy, however. Occasionally, Williams had to smoke them out.
Workers with the town of Waynesville’s sewer department would open up manholes and pump smoke into the lines while Williams and his team watched for it to seep up from the ground, revealing the spot in the line where the leak is.
Other times, they slipped a little green dye into the sewer line, while Williams stood in the creek looking for a green plume.
Along one stretch, high readings clearly indicated a hot spot but even the smoke and dye trick was unable to turn up a leak in the town’s lines. Not easily stumped, Williams cast about for other suspects and settled on a restaurant which sits along the creek. When his team flushed green dye down the restaurant’s toilets, sure enough, the creek turned green just seconds later.
Williams said the town of Waynesville spends $250,000 a year systematically repairing sewer lines. The town was willing and eager to work with Williams targeting the leaks and quickly fixed them.
In Sylva, Williams traced most of the problem to just two main offenders. One was an overflowing manhole. It wasn’t hard to spot the sewage bubbling out of it, Williams said. The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority patched the leak.
Along a side branch, Williams found a failing septic tank draining into the creek.
“It looked as if someone had rammed a pipe into the septic field to release the pressure and that was going into creek,” Williams said.
The homeowner didn’t have the money to fix the problem, however, but she was able to get financial assistance through the Waste Discharge Elimination Program, a state initiative to pinpoint and fix failing septic tanks.
Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek initially came to the state’s attention thanks to regular sampling done by volunteers from the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee.
“We petitioned the state to come down and take a look,” Clapp said.
The state got similar results, and Scott’s Creek was put on the impaired list in 2005.
“I had no idea at that point that it would be down to the level it is now,” Clapp said.
Miles to go
There are 490 miles of stream in the 19 western counties on the state’s list of impaired waters. There are several reasons a creek or river lands on the black list. One is bacteria from raw sewage. Another is high loads of sediment and erosion, or a deficiency of aquatic life.
The state hasn’t always been involved in fixing streams. It listed impaired waters but had no staff to do anything about the bad news.
“As far as a hands-on approach, we hadn’t done that so much,” Williams said.
In 2007, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources began its first-ever stream restoration program.
Richland and Scott’s creeks were the first in the 17-county area chosen to get help. It was a lucky break, since only a couple of waterways could be tackled at a time.
Priority goes to those with critical habitat for endangered species or popular creeks for recreation — which is why both Richland and Scott’s creeks were picked.
A 2007 article in The Smoky Mountain News about the public health risk at the rafting put-in at Scott’s Creek was a major factor in its selection, as well as lobbying by WATR, Williams said.
WATR volunteers often serve as the eyes and ears for the state water quality division, which doesn’t have the staff to sample all the streams that need monitoring. Haywood Waterways Association serves the same role in Haywood County.
This fall, WATR has partnered with Western Carolina University environmental science students to sample Savannah Creek, another hot spot in Jackson County for fecal coliform, and to do follow-up monitoring along Scott’s Creek to make sure high levels don’t resurface.
“It is exciting that WATR and our partners will be testing more streams to confirm clean water or to identify problems,” Clapp said.
Meanwhile in Waynesville, Richland Creek is still parked on the list of impaired waters. The reason: it lacks key aquatic species that a mountain stream should have.
Decades ago, pollution from Waynesville factories wiped out species. While the water is cleaner now, fish haven’t been able to repopulate Richland Creek.
“Lake Junaluska stands in the way as a barrier to fish migration, so we have had to physically pick the fish up and bring them up there,” Williams said.
Several species are being reintroduced and should improve Richland Creek’s biological integrity, and eventually get it off the list of impaired waters. The N.C. Wildlife Commission and Tennessee Valley Authority have helped with the reintroductions.
“Whatever it takes to fix the stream, we are trying to do,” Williams said. “We can never really say mission accomplished and go home and it is fixed. You have to keep monitoring forever.”
Scott’s Creek improvement
Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek show marked improvement following efforts in 2007 to cleanup sources of contamination
State standard 200
Average reading in 2005 2,150
Average reading in 2008 170
Average reading in 2009 100
Average reading in 2010 130
* Measured in fecal units per 100 milliliters of water. Samples taken at the mouth of Scott’s Creek just before its confluence with the Tuckasegee River. Data provided by Division of Water Quality.