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Finding wetlands in the most unlikely places

As Mickey Henson waded into a brambly thicket bordering a town park in Sylva, he stopped a few steps in, bent down and retrieved a single blade of grass, plucked and displayed between the thumb and forefinger above his head like a prize trophy.

“We’ve got a wetland candidate here,” Henson declared. Apparently Henson’s blade of grass wasn’t just any blade of grass but a harbinger of a wetland wannabe. Henson pointed to several willow trees buried in drifts of kudzu and other plants that indicated there was a buried wetland here begging to be set free.

Building a wetland with observation walkways along the edge of Mark Watson Park in Sylva and restoring the ditch of a stream trickling through it is one of the latest nature restoration projects on Henson’s to do list. His firm, Appalachian Environmental Services, has logged similar projects across Western North Carolina.

The firm has built wetlands at Lake Junaluska to help trap silt entering the lake, wetlands in urban Asheville to filter runoff from gutters that flowed straight into Beaver Lake, and wetlands in Cullowhee to trap fertilizers running off ball fields. When beavers transformed a portion of Cashiers’ town park into a wetland, the firm turned the catastrophe into an asset by creating nature boardwalks through it. The most typical wetland projects are built to trap runoff from parking lots and roofs, as was the case with a recent wetland construction at Haywood Vocational Opportunities in Waynesville.

“That wetland and its plantings will suck up the heavy metals and nutrients and only the clean water will actually go back out into the stream,” said Rebecca Henson, Mickey’s wife and partner in Appalachian Environmental Services.

Examples of the firm’s other stream restorations are also found far and wide. The Valley River outside Murphy, several sections of the Tuckasegee River outside Bryson City, Browning Branch through the industrial section of Hazelwood, and streams all over Jackson County blown out by the floods of 2004 are examples of the firm’s handiwork.

Sometimes, restoring a stream means building a new stream from scratch, as was the case with a project in Bryson City several years ago. The original stream had been moved into a man-made ditch decades ago and the old streambed was obliterated, according to Mickey’s investigations.

“It was as straight as my arm, and a mountain stream is not straight as an arm,” Mickey said. Moving a stream from its natural meander to a trench along the edge of a field to make farming easier or to make room for a building was commonplace, Mickey said. Hundreds of branches and creeks were moved and straightened in the mountains.

“The Clean Water Act didn’t come into being until 1972, so before that you could pretty much do whatever you wanted,” Mickey said.

But such a move is bad news for the stream. A straight ditch means there’s nothing to slow down the water — no boulders, no meanders, no little pools — so the stream banks are constantly scoured and sloughing into the stream.

“It’s all about dissipation of energy,” Mickey said. “If you don’t have the step pools to dissipate the energy, you need the meanders.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a dug out trench doesn’t slope enough to keep water moving. It becomes a slowly drifting puddle.

“Trout’s worst enemy is fine sediment,” Mickey said. “When you put a stream in with more of a slope, you get better sediment transport.”

An altered stream also lacks native plants to shade the water or hold the soil in place along the bank. Instead of native stream cobble that aquatic insects need for breeding, there’s just a muddy bottom. And without aquatic insects, there’s no fish and frogs either. It’s just a sickly trickle.

“When you put the ecosystem back, that is definitely one of the indicators you’ve done a good job: if the wildlife comes back,” Mickey said.

Mickey was restoring this particular stream in Bryson City for Swain County schools, which wanted a new ball field at the high school. To make the new ball field, a stream that ran through it would have to be diverted. Any developer diverting a stream has to improve one somewhere nearby in exchange. Mickey found the trade-off stream just outside Bryson City.

Mickey could see the faint shape of the old buried streambed in the field. Over the course of several months, the company designed and dug out a new stream, lined it with rock, planted it with native plants and finally watched the stream fill up its new home.

“It’s pretty cool,” Mickey said.

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