WATR tries to stay active
By Joel Adams • Contributing Writer
Strong public interest in the aftermath of the dam break at Balsam Mountain Preserve has prompted Roger Clapp, executive director for the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, to organize a public forum on the progress of clean-up efforts by the developers. Or at least attempt to.
Clapp hopes to invite agencies monitoring the sediment cleanup to speak about the status of sediment dredging and stream bank restoration in the wake of the dam break, but has been unable as of yet to line up their participation.
Clapp called the dam break at the Balsam Mountain Preserve — which occurred June 7 at the 4,400-acre development in Jackson County — “an extreme sediment flood event and it kind of epitomizes everything that can go wrong, and it all went wrong at once.” The earthen dam held back a pond used to irrigate a golf course at the development. When the dam collapsed, it unleashed at least 1,000 cubic yards of sediment into Scotts and Sugarloaf creeks, and eventually the Tuckasegee, scouring creek banks and pummeling aquatic habitat with silt.
Clapp, a hydrologist, said the public wants know what state and county officials are finding. While the dam break occurred three months ago, drifts of sediment continue to lift up, move downstream and resettle. Those drifts are what Balsam Mountain Preserve is supposed to be dredging. In addition to the immediate aftermath, Clapp fears an accumulation of mud on the river bottom will continue to cause problems for a long time to come if not addressed.
“There would be secondary damage because this is the fish feeding ground,” he said. “It’s the spawning ground for the fish, so you don’t expect those problems to occur until this winter when spawning occurs.”
Glenn Liming, 68, is on the WATR board of directors. He said the objective of holding a forum with state regulatory officials would be strictly informative.
“We’re not trying to point fingers or blame, but just to let people know what the process is,” said Liming.
Craig Green, 58, has a doctorate in physics and is also on the WATR board of directors. He said he would like to see a forum take place for discussion’s sake, but “to invite somebody you can’t have it be an inquisition.”
The county has declined to participate, citing the potential of future litigation between the county and Balsam Mountain Preserve, Clapp said. Balsam Mountain Preserve is appealing a $300,000 fine issued by the county for erosion violations during golf course construction.
Clapp said that while the incident in June caused a great deal of concern, the problem with sediment is nothing new.
“These streams are supposed to flow clear several hours after rainfall, and there are rules that you keep your soil on your own property, and between those two things we ought to still have clear streams and we don’t have them. Streams are muddy for hours and days, and the river is muddy itself all summer long,” Clapp said.
He added that when the waters have run clear this summer, it has only been during drought conditions.
“When the fall rains start, it’s gonna be muddy, muddy, muddy here,” Clapp said.
WATR has been working on a plan to install a device that would measure the amount of sediment in Scotts Creek in Sylva. Craig Green, 58, who is also on the WATR board of directors and a member of Trout Unlimited, said the site would be at either Grindstaff Road or by the Jackson Paper Plant.
“We’re struggling to try and get that in,” Green said.
Clapp would like for the current sediment measurements to be displayed either at the site or online.
Tim Garret, 53, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serves as a technical advisor for WATR. He says improper development causes the majority of sediment problems.
“It’s disturbing a lot of land, and when you disturb a lot of land, you have sediment problems.”
This past spring, WATR conducted Clear Water courses for contractors on how to remain in compliance with environmental laws pertaining to the watershed while developing an area.
“There a number of very responsible (contractors) and we hear it from the soil-erosion inspectors in both counties that the people who have taken the course follow the rules better, contain the soil better, and when they’re asked to make modifications, they do it promptly and correctly,” Clapp said. “And those that haven’t taken these courses, many of them have the same old problems.”
According to a recent newsletter issued by WATR, 76 contractors and excavators participated in the classes. Clapp said the group has obtained funding to host Clear Water Contractor courses this winter for Jackson and Swain counties.
Liming said these sorts of projects are what set WATR apart from many other environmental organizations.
“That’s the kind of thing that’s done behind the scenes,” he said. “It’s not flashy. It’s not confrontational. We’re just trying to educate these contractors as to what the rules are.”
Clapp said while the courses help keep contractors from breaking any laws, he would like one day to see a system in which contractors are scored on how environmentally friendly their operations are, similar to a sanitation rating in restaurants.
“You talk about my dreams,” Clapp said. “I would like to also have something that contractors would really aspire to and kind of a green way of building that contractors could grade themselves on.”
Garret said that while activism and education are part of the organization’s agenda, “I think it’s more science-based towards their resource. You know, they are concerned with the water quality and everything that goes on with the riverbanks.”
“It’s not just ‘trees are great, don’t cut ’em,’” he said. “They advocate for the solution to the problem.”