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Sylva sets sights on revitalized Scotts Creek

fr scottscreekRunning through the hearts of Dillsboro and Sylva on its tumble down from Balsam, Scotts Creek has star potential. It could be a centerpiece of both downtowns — a magnet for anglers, kayakers and kids looking for a place to splash around.

But it’s not, and Sylva Commissioner David Nestler wants to see that change. 

“It is by far our most polluted waterway, which is important to note because it flows through two downtowns,” Nestler told the Jackson County Commissioners this month. “We feel this creek could be a tremendous economic asset.” 

It’s a mantra he’s been repeating since the campaign leading up to his November election to the town board. Once in office, Nestler set about rallying the troops to make something good happen for Scotts Creek. The town board hopes that the $85,000 N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant it applied for for with help from the Southwestern Commission will provide the money it needs to develop a solid cleanup plan.

The solution, Nestler stressed, will require as broad a coalition as it’s possible to enlist. The creek’s issues with fecal contamination, sedimentation, litter and habitat quality will take a concerted, across-the-board effort to address successfully. To that end, the town board is making the rounds to the various governments invested in Scotts Creek, looking for conceptual buy-in and, more concretely, pledges to help with the match money the town would need to put up if it landed the grant. 

Jackson County Commissioners promised $7,000 of the $17,000 match dollars needed, with the town set to approach Dillsboro next. 

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“That helps financially, of course, but it’s also tremendously symbolic,” Nestler said. A show of solidarity should help the case for grant dollars.  

“It’s a community problem that will only have a community solution,” agreed Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, which has been heavily involved in water sampling on the creek. 


History repeating

For those familiar with the recent history of Scotts Creek, the pitch may sound like a bit of déjà vous. 

Back in the early 2000s, the creek was yielding astronomically high levels of fecal coliform, bacteria found in the digestive tracts of humans and other animals. Though not usually pathogenic themselves, high fecal coliform levels indicate the presence of disease-causing organisms.

In 2005, the five fecal coliform samples taken by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality — then known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — yielded an average nine times the level considered safe. 

The results spurred a collaborative effort to find the sources of the pollution —leaky pipes and faulty septic systems — and get them fixed. With sources removed, the fecal coliform levels quickly came down. In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, no samples exceeding the state limit of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water were taken. 

“But then,” Clapp said, “it started to go up.”

In 2013, WATR took five samples, two of which were over the state limit — though the average of the five, 189 colonies per milliliter, came in just below the 200 colonies milliliter limit. But of the seven samples WATR took the next year, four were over the standard and the average was 318 colonies per milliliter. Only one sample was taken in 2015, but at 404 colonies per milliliter, it also was well over the standard. 

What that means, Clapp said, is that there are some new contamination sources in town. It will take diligent sampling to track down the leaky pipes or faulty septic systems responsible. 

“What you’re really trying to do is find out what stream reach or stream segment has the increase, and then you go running around and look for bad boys,” he said.  


Other water quality issues

Fecal coliform may be the scariest-sounding of Scotts Creek’s major contaminants, but it’s not the only one. The creek also has a lot of mud. 

“In most every case when there’s a large storm, the mud in Scotts Creek is muddier than the Tuckasegee River, so it’s a source of pollution,” Clapp said.  

In every side-by-side sample Clapp has taken of Scott Creek and the Tuck, the muddiness — called “turbidity” — of Scott Creek has been significantly higher than that on the Tuck. To get the samples, Clapp takes a measurement of river water above its confluence with Scotts Creek and a measurement from Scotts Creek at the confluence. 

High levels of mud disrupt the creek’s ecology. And because the mud has to come from somewhere, a muddy river means that erosion’s happening elsewhere in the watershed. 

“We need to find out and handle sources of erosion,” Clapp said. 

He’d also like to see some substantial restoration work on the streambank. Scotts Creek has a lot of length that’s not well vegetated, and that should be fixed, Clapp said. Creekside planting is more than just an aesthetic touch — riparian plants shade the water to keep it cool, fuel stream ecology by dropping their leaves to rot in the water and hold the soil in place, reducing turbidity. Getting the streambanks good and healthy doesn’t have a quick or easy fix, however. 

Nor does getting them clean and free of litter. Litter’s been a hot topic of conversation in Sylva lately, with concerned citizens lamenting the presence of plastic bags and empty wrappers strewn along roadways. But the litter also makes its way to the creek, creating an unsightly vista for human users and hazards for wildlife. 


Using the Fisher Creek Fund

The grant is just in the application phase, and there’s no guarantee Sylva will even get it. But, grant or no, cleaning up Scotts Creek will be a long-term project requiring multiple grants and partners to knock out. Whether the Clean Water grant comes through or not, getting the creek cleaned up will be a priority for the town.

Part of the idea, Nestler said, is to get a project going that will allow Sylva to use its Fisher Creek Fund — the money it got from selling development rights to its old watershed on Fisher Creek — for water quality projects. 

Originally totaling $3.5 million, the fund now has $3.2 million left and earns about $6,000 in interest each year at the current rate. With a plan in place — paid for by, hopefully, the Clean Water grant — the town would hope to put that interest toward cleaning up the waterway. 

“The long-term goal for that fund is not to deplete it but to sustain it,” Nestler said. 

But that doesn’t have to mean that the town spends only $6,000 per year on whatever projects the plan identifies. The money can be used as a bargaining chip to leverage grants, acting as match funding to unlock new dollars. 

For the near future, however, the Scotts Creek cleanup crew is holding its breath in anticipation of the decision on the grant award, to be announced in April. 

“No matter what direction we take,” Nestler said, “the first step is going to be to have a plan.”


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