Mountain waters aren’t what they appear; Scotts Creek tests ‘scary high’ for contaminates
Unsafe levels of fecal coliform in the Tuckasegee River and two tributaries around Dillsboro have Jackson County public health officials puzzled over how seriously to take the issue and what to do next.
But to Roger Clapp, director of the nonprofit Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River, the first step is simple: post a public notice along the river warning the public. One of the areas in particular — the confluence of Scotts Creek and the Tuckasegee — is the site of a public park where rafting, fishing and swimming are commonplace in the summer.
“To me it would be crazy to swim there,” Clapp said. “People who recreate in these waters do so at their own risk. The bottom line is people need information and need to make their own decisions.”
Scotts and Savannah creeks and the Dillsboro section of the Tuck will soon join the state’s list of “impaired waters” based on the results of water sampling conducted in 2005, but that’s as far as the state will go.
“We don’t have authority to say you can’t swim in anything. We just say you probably shouldn’t,” said Cam McNutt, water quality analyst with the state Division of Water Quality. “County health departments have the authority to do that, but very few actually do.”
Officials with the Jackson County Health Department aren’t eager to post warnings at this point, let alone an outright “no swimming” sign.
“We are not inclined to do that as of right now,” said Charles Stephens, supervisor with the environmental health section of the health department.
Paula Carden, the director of the health department, said education of the rafting companies using the area as a put-in would be preferred over posting a sign. But Clapp believes the public is entitled to know the risks.
“If people have open sores, if they have a weakened immune system, if they are very young or very old, they need to consider whether or not to get in that water,” Clapp said. The samples from Scotts Creek came back nearly eight times higher than the level considered safe for swimming.
“That is very high. That is scary high,” McNutt said.
The levels from Scotts Creek are so high that activities with partial contact with the water like rafting and fishing are not recommended either, Clapp said.
But neither Carden nor Stephens seemed too concerned.
“I think it’s being blown out of proportion,” Stephens said. Carden said some fecal coliform should be expected in every creek or stream.
There is one problem with the state’s testing: its date. The testing was done in August 2005 and is based on five water samples taken over a 30-day period. Stephens said the first order of business should be new testing.
“I hate to think they are looking at something that is three years old,” Stephens said. “How do we know some of that has not been corrected?”
Carden also questioned whether the readings were representative of the status quo.
“It can vary from the day that it’s tested to the next day,” Carden said.
Fecal coliform levels have come down some since the state’s testing in 2005, according to sampling done by a volunteer corps with WATR. But they are still unsafe for swimming and borderline for fishing and rafting where people aren’t fully emerged but still have partial contact with the water.
“What we have is a system right on the brink of being acceptable for partial contact,” Clapp said.
What’s causing it
The fecal coliform readings could be coming from any of several sources. Sewage seeping from leaky pipes into the soil and eventually into the creeks is one likely culprit. The Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority routinely sends a camera down its lines looking for such leaks. It examines 10 percent of its lines a year — rotating through its whole system every 10 years.
“I certainly am not going to say we don’t have leaking lines. There’s not a system in the United States that doesn’t,” said Joe Cline, director of TWASA. “We’ve spent quite a bit of money over the past few years repairing lines and things, but there is really no silver bullet out there.”
The sewer lines running through Sylva date back to the 1940s, and even ‘30s, Cline said. Cline said the routine line checks nearly always turns up leaks, but there are fewer detected now than when the practice of routine checks was started.
TWASA discharges treated sewage into the Tuckasegee just upstream of Dillsboro, but has only exceeded its permit for fecal coliform once in recent years, Cline said. Besides, the treatment plant on the Tuck wouldn’t account for the high levels on Scotts and Savannah creeks, where the contamination seems to be originating and possibly causing the high levels downstream in the Tuck.
“I will say emphatically I don’t think we are the only source,” Cline said of TWASA. “It could be failing septic systems. It could be animal waste.”
A massive campaign to find and fix failing septic tanks and straight piping along Scotts Creek and its tributaries was conducted in 2001. The county environmental health department hosted a team of state inspectors that came in to do the testing under a state grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
“They went door to door, yard by yard,” Stephens said. “I got a five-drawer filing cabinet full of data they collected.”
For that reason, Stephens isn’t sure how much of the problem could possibly be coming from failing septic tanks.
That leaves livestock wallowing in creeks as a possible culprit, but there are few streams in the mountains where that wouldn’t be an issue. The Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District helps farmers fence cattle out of creeks and build a well for the livestock to drink from instead. Money to help farmers with that is currently available.
The designation as an impaired stream could have a silver lining. The designation can attract the help of state experts. State water analysts will do modeling of the creeks and their tributaries and help develop a plan to reduce fecal coliform.
The designation can also mean grant money, McNutt said. It could mean state grants to accelerate the testing of old sewer lines by the Tuckasegee Sewer Authority and money to help people repair leaking septic tanks. It could also mean extra money to help farmers get their livestock out of creeks.
There are hundreds of impaired waters statewide that need the state’s attention, and most have been on the impaired list a lot longer.
“We have 800 of these on this list. This is a new one so I think it is going to be on down the list,” McNutt said.
If the local community shows an interest in fixing the problem, it could make the Tuck more competitive.
“If no one cares then it is going to go low on our list,” McNutt said. “If there is not interest locally it is hard for us to justify spending limited resource on.”
That’s often the case with urban streams that McNutt described as “trash dumps” because no one goes in them anyway.
That’s obviously not the case with the Tuck and Scotts Creek where recreation is rampant.
“If this is something that’s a big concern to the local watershed, then you are more likely to get participation not just from the Division of Water Quality, but other agencies,” McNutt said.