All about the water: Adults get creek-splashing in inaugural waterways education event
There’s excitement in the air as the class, its members scattered across the Pigeon River under cloudy skies in Canton, hunches over the water in an enthusiastic search. Slightly encumbered by awkwardly bulging, oversize wader suits, class members turn over rocks, shuffle their feet across the river bottom and generally stir things up to flush any nearby aquatic creatures into their waiting nets.
Haywood Waterways Association has provided this education program year after year for eighth-graders in Haywood County, but on Sept. 24, the class wasn’t composed of over-energetic teenagers.
Rather, 25 adults who work in sectors from municipal government to real estate to nonprofits congregated at the Canton Recreation Park that afternoon — participants in Haywood Waterways’ first-ever “Leaders in the Creek” event.
Dumping the contents reveals everything from stoneflies to dragonfly nymphs, an array of scuttling creatures that draws gasps of admiration from its finders. These creepy-crawlies, explains U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs representative Gary Peeples, are more than just novelties. They’re important indicators of water health.
“The cool thing about macroinvertabrates is some of them can live in really nasty water,” he said. “Some of them, however, have to have clean water to live.”
Leaders in the Creek was a natural outgrowth of the success of Kids in the Creek, said Haywood Waterways’ Executive Director Eric Romaniszyn, because while Kids in the Creek works to instill water conservation values in the next generation of leaders, Leaders in the Creek tries to do the same with those who call the shots now.
“It makes sense to bring in the adults, the leaders who make decisions about ordinances and development and trying to bring businesses here,” Romaniszyn said.
Participants rotated through nearly the same set of stations the eighth-graders do — a lesson in what causes pollution and how it affects the water with Gail Heathman of the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District; a chance to remove some invasive plants and replace them with a native serviceberry tree with Haywood Community College biology instructor Sara Martin; and some time in the river, catching bugs and fish for identification by professionals from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Conservation Commission.
“For us to do what Kids in the Creek does is brilliant, because we’re not observers of Kids in the Creek — we’re part of Kids in the Creek,” said Jack Ewing, executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly.
The adults jumped in with both feet — literally and figuratively — shedding professional seriousness for a few hours to embrace the childlike excitement that comes from splashing around in the water.
The enthusiasm was especially apparent when it was time for electrofishing. That’s a method scientists use to get a look at the fishy population of a piece of water, injecting the water with a current strong enough to temporarily stun fish in the immediate vicinity for capture in a waiting net spread across the mainstream of the current. But getting plenty of fish requires a whole team of people to splash down the creek with the person holding the electric pack. There was no shortage of takers to join the enthusiastic throng of splashers or to peer excitedly into the net as it was lifted up.
It’s fascinating to see what diversity of creatures lives in the water, said Becky Seymour, video marketing manager for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. As a transplant from Chicago whose opportunities for creek-splashing have been somewhat limited in the past, she was set to take full advantage of her time on the riverbank that afternoon.
For Haywood County native Andrew Bowen, town planner for Maggie Valley, the experience was meaningful in a different kind of way.
“I came here when I was in eighth grade, so it was an important part of middle school,” he said of Kids in the Creek. Coming back as an adult to do the same program over again was just cool.
Romaniszyn was glad to see everyone having such a good time, but he hopes the impact will spread beyond the event itself.
“Water is a part of every aspect of life, whether you’re using it for recreation or the orange juice you drink in the morning,” he said. Having clean water is important, and it’s especially important for people in Haywood County to take ownership. The county is unique in that all of its water originates in the county itself. That means that Haywood has a high degree of control over what its own water quality looks like — and also a hefty impact on those downstream.
“If we don’t at least address these (water quality) issues and work to resolve them, it could impact all of us,” he said.
The experience certainly seemed to strike a chord with those who attended.
For his part, Ewing said he appreciated the lesson on native plants and their virtues — less need for maintenance and fertilizers, greater usefulness to wildlife — as opposed to non-natives. He’s been working to get a more natural-looking edge planted around Lake Junaluska — a change that “has been hard for people to accept” — and so attending Leaders in the Creek encouraged him to continue.
“Anything we can do to get less sediment into our creeks I’m interested in,” he said.
Waterside plantings help hold soil down, keeping it out of the water. That’s an important service to Lake Junaluska, which has spent millions of dollars dredging unwanted sediment from the lake.
For Karen Hammett, a retired teacher who’s now a member of the Southwestern Resource Conservation and Development Council and the Fines Creek Community Association, the afternoon was less about what was in the curriculum than about who she was learning it with. She already knew the bulk of the information imparted but was excited to meet other people who care about waterways and have expertise that she might not. In the future, she said, she’ll know who to go to for help when she needs it.
Not that Hammett had a problem with the curriculum. It was easy to see that she was as happy as could be with her hands in the creek or in the soil surrounding the newly planted trees.
“I think it’s a great way to educate these community leaders in what Haywood Waterways does,” she said. “It gives you hands-on experience and it teaches us more about water conservation and what we can do to make the waterways clean.”
Romaniszyn said he might have been a little ambitious in his initial round of invitations, soliciting attendance by everyone from local community members to the area’s U.S. Congress representatives. But the turnout the inaugural event did see, he said, was encouraging. Already there’s talk of next year, and not just by Romaniszyn.
“Next year,” Ewing said, “I want to have my senior staff come experience this.”
Haywood water’s greatest enemies
- Stormwater picks up pollutants such as motor oil, fertilizer and anything else lying on the ground as it flows downhill. Those pollutants flow straight into the watershed.
- Sedimentation, when dirt accumulates in the waterways, changes habitat conditions for aquatic life.
- Bacteria from septic leakage, pet waste and livestock waste can degrade water quality.
By the numbers
Water is an important economic driver for Haywood County, creating revenue in sectors ranging from agriculture to tourism, said Haywood Waterways Association Executive Director Eric Romaniszyn.
“No matter what your interest in water, it impacts all our lives,” he said.
- $15.5 million of farm products sold in Haywood County each year
- $16.6 million revenue from tourism to Haywood County annually
- $174 million annual revenue to Western North Carolina for fly fishing
- 1,997 jobs created due to fly fishing in Western North Carolina
- $40 million annually from tourism and church-related events at Lake Junaluska
Source: Haywood Waterways Association provided figures compiled from the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District, N.C. Department of Commerce and Tourism, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Lake Junaluska Assembly.