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Willing participation key to Greens Creek cleanup

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, Jackson County’s Greens Creek was used as a dumping ground — milk jugs, tin cans and all kinds of unwanted items, local residents say.

“When their cat had a litter of kittens they didn’t want, they tossed them off the bridge up here; they had a litter of puppies they didn’t want, they threw them off the bridge up here,” said resident Carroll Buchanan.

Residents banded together to clean up the creek. Now, no dumping signs are posted at a small parking area just across the single lane bridge that leads into the rural community. And the county located a recycling center and garbage drop-off just across U.S. 441, which has made it easier for people to put refuse where it belongs, said resident Dowdy Bradley.

Consequently, it was hard for some residents like Bradley and Buchanan to believe that today Greens Creek is infested with bacteria, according to samples taken by the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River.

“You’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Buchanan told WATR Executive Director Roger Clapp during a community meeting of creekside property owners held last Thursday (July 27).

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Buchanan, standing on the front porch of meeting host Bill Sutton’s rental home overlooking the creek, pointed his finger across the lawn at Clapp and denounced WATR’s proposed project that would recommend methods for individual property owners to improve local water quality. Participation in the project is entirely voluntary, as would be following any of WATR’s recommendations.

“We’ve got a clean creek,” Buchanan said. “We don’t need outside influence telling us what to do with this creek.”

The residents of Greens Creek are monitoring their creek well enough already, said Buchanan, a contractor by trade and a candidate in this past May’s Democratic primary election who was soundly defeated by Whittier farmer William Shelton.

“We’ve got enough interference without you people sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong,” Buchanan said. “When there is a problem, I think the people who are here would recognize it.”

“I’d like to keep it clean,” resident Betsy Keller interjected.

However, unlike milk jugs, tin cans, dead kittens and puppies, bacteria aren’t so easy to see. WATR sampling of creeks within the Tuckasegee watershed show that fecal coliform (bacteria from waste, be it animal or human) and E. coli (the bacteria so often associated with undercooked ground beef) are commonly and abundantly found.

WATR samples show Greens Creek’s fecal coliform levels at close to 300 cfu/100mL. The limit for bodily contact is 200 cfu/100mL. CFU stands for colony forming unit and is a measure of the viable bacterial numbers in a sample.

The Jackson County Health Department does not test for fecal coliform, only E. coli. Sampling results show that average E. coli bacteria levels on Savannah Creek, located just below Greens Creek, measured 620 colonies per sample in 2005. The problem is as severe if not greater across the county. Where Scotts Creek and the Tuckasegee River meet, E. coli levels were measured at 1,560 colonies per sample.

For reference, an average of 126 colonies per sample is considered to be a health hazard, Clapp said during a meeting held at Sylva’s Town Hall last Monday (July 24) to raise awareness of the issue. In Haywood County, Hyatt Creek has measured 3,400 colonies per sample, Richland Creek 4,900 colonies per sample.

However, bacteria are only one concern for Greens Creek, Clapp said. Erosion leading to increased turbidity — sediment in the water — and temperatures that may threaten the creek’s trout population also present problems.

The plan to combat these problems is to bring stakeholders to the table, including local residents, farmers, those in the development industries, and government agencies. However, the effort is largely grassroots.

“You do it, or you don’t do it,” Clapp told Greens Creek residents.

Property owners who wish to get involved may contact WATR, which will survey the site asking questions such as when was the last time the septic tank was pumped and whether there is vegetation on the stream banks. If there are things that a property owner can do to help improve water quality, such as planting trees to prevent erosion, WATR will make such recommendations.

But Buchanan and Bradley were suspicious of the program’s voluntary nature, and just how long it would remain as so. Buchanan cautioned his neighbors that sooner or later the program would mean rules and regulations, which there are already too many of, he said.

Cattle farmer Clarence Hall agreed, saying that he felt singled out because he was one of few agricultural land users in the community. Often such farmers fail to fence their livestock out of local creeks and their waste adds to bacteria counts. However, Hall has worked with N.C. Soil and Water Conservation staff and is a model farmer, said Dale Hall, the local resident working closest with WATR to encourage participation.

“I know for a fact that Clarence follows good management practices,” Dale Hall said. “You’re doing the right thing.”

Upon hearing of such concerns about increased regulations Tom Massie — vice chairman of the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District, western field representative for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and county commissioner-elect of the Sylva district — said volunteer actions wouldn’t open any sort of door.

“Unless they’re already violating an existing law, they do something in a creek or around a creek without a permit, then there shouldn’t be anything that they would do on their land that would lead to more regulations,” Massie said.

Getting ahead of the regulatory agencies and taking on the personal responsibility to manage local water resources would mean that, for now, Greens Creek controls its own destiny.

A voluntary action to clean up a creek could do nothing but potentially improve a water source and thereby help keep it off the Environmental Protection Agency’s 303D list, which notes “impaired” water systems such as Haywood County’s Hyatt Creek. Hyatt Creek is on the 303D list due to its sedimentation levels. Impaired waters are targeted for clean up by governmental agencies.

“You can volunteer and do some things or you can wait until government forces a law and hires someone to enforce them,” said Dale Hall, a medical laboratory and biology instructor at Southwestern Community College.

Keller agreed.

“It’s not like people are going to be getting fined,” she said.

Buchanan asked if it was true that WATR would be asking residents to give up a 25-foot conservation easement along their property bordering the creek. As Clapp and Hall both shook their heads no, resident Susan Reese wanted more information.

“What would a conservation easement do for me?” Reese asked.

“It would put encumbrances on your deed,” Buchanan fired back.

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