Sediment foils irrigation systems at worst possible time
During the past three weeks, tomato farmers in the Thomas Valley near Whittier have been unable at times to run drip irrigation equipment to counter drought conditions because sediment in the Tuckasegee River was clogging their pumps.
“With the 90-degree days, it’s really critical that these farms get drip irrigation,” said William Shelton, who runs a vegetable farm in Thomas Valley. “That river’s our lifeblood when it comes to these crops. Particularly during drought.”
Tomatoes are 85 percent water. When the plants are overstressed, they will actually take water back from the fruit, ruining the crop.
Kent Cochran, who farms 20 acres of tomatoes just up the road from Shelton, doesn’t understand how the river can be full of mud when there is no rain.
“When it rains, there’s going to be mud for a day or two but that’s not really an issue,” Cochran said. “We’ve been needing the water bad these past three weeks, and sometimes we go over there and it’s clear, and other days it’s mud.”
Robbie Shelton, the Jackson County erosion control officer, has been equally perplexed. Shelton’s job includes monitoring construction sites that could dump sediment into the river.
Last week, Robbie Shelton traveled up and down the river in search of an answer to the farmers’ questions. The focus of his investigation was Duke Energy’s efforts to restore the streambed above and below the former site of the Dillsboro Dam.
Shelton took pictures during the first week of July that showed the river was clear above the dam and increasingly turbid below.
“The Tuck upstream of the dam is clear. It’s downstream that it’s muddy,” Shelton said.
Shelton said during the drought, the river was increasingly muddy as it moved downstream towards Barker’s Creek.
“The closer you get to Thomas Valley the dingier it gets,” Shelton said. “It’s a progression. I’ve tried to find a source, and there’s not been one that’s been found.”
Nate Darnell, who works an 8-acre tomato field in Thomas Valley as part of his North Face Farm, has tried to bring some levity to an otherwise worrisome situation.
“As a farmer, I have to deal with a lot of runoff regulations, and it strikes me as ironic that the upstream runoff from development is causing us the problems now,” Darnell said
The restoration of the stream bank at the former Dillsboro Dam site is monitored daily by personnel from Duke Energy in accordance with the Clean Water Act and overseen by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
Duke has been monitoring turbidity below its work zone. It has not exceeded state standards. In fact it has been well below them, according to Duke spokesperson Jason Walls.
“The turbidity and the sediment in the river are coming in from other places,” Walls said. “We feel confident that our operations aren’t increasing the levels of sediment.”
If the dam site isn’t causing the sediment, then what is?
That’s the question Cochran and Darnell are asking. Darnell has observed that on dry days the river gets turbid in the middle of the day.
“It was coming on down here about midday, anywhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.,” Darnell said. “I really can’t give you a good reason, but I could speculate.”
So far this summer, Darnell estimates he has lost between one and three tomatoes from each of his plants. By the end of the season, those losses could add up to $25,000 in lost crops.
Darnell said farmers are constantly dealing with loss, whether from drought or insects or crows, but having the cause be the river that is the valley’s lifeblood is mystifying.
“The river’s not always going to be clear, but we really shouldn’t have to fight it during drought,” Darnell said.
Lake J seeks state help for dam, sediment
Lake Junaluska Assembly is asking Haywood County commissioners to help it land state grants for maintenance on the lake and dam.
The Assembly faces two major issues: repairs to the aging dam and sediment removal from the lake. An engineering study is needed for the spillways and gate controls in preparation for improvements to the dam.
Meanwhile, removing silt from the lake has become a regular maintenance chore every three to four years.
Lake Junaluska hopes to get $30,000 or 50 percent of the cost for the engineering from the state. The lake is seeking either $440,000 or 66.6 percent of the cost for the sediment removal project. In both cases the state would provide whichever is less.
The Assembly will pay for the rest from its own funds, according to Jimmy Carr, director of Lake Junaluska Assembly.
The Haywood County Board of Commissioners plans to vote on an endorsement of the application at its next meeting on Sept. 21, after wording on the proposal has been changed to ensure financial and legal responsibility for the projects rests solely with the Assembly. Once approved, Haywood County would request the state funds on the Assembly’s behalf.
The Assembly has already spent $3.3 million on renovating the dam over the past six years. While Carr says the dam is “very safe” and no critical improvements are needed, work on the dam is not over.
According to the Assembly, the spillway is not in as good a shape as hoped, but that there is no cause for alarm. The study would be part of a general effort to maintain the dam.
The goal of the proposed dam study is to have engineers determine the extent of problems with the spillway, so the Assembly can make financial and structural plans to fix them.
At the moment, the more costly project deals with sediment removal, with much of the expense going toward creating a disposal site on top of Sleepy Hollow Road on property the Assembly already owns.
While the cost of building such a site is “a big unknown,” the proposed disposal site could be used for decades to come, said Buddy Young, director of residential services, at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.
Since 2001, the Assembly has done extensive sediment removal from Lake Junaluska.
“In one year, we removed 5,500 loads of silt from the lake,” said Carr. If it isn’t removed, it could fill the lake up over time, Carr said.
As development has increased on mountain slopes in recent years, so has erosion. Sediment washing off construction sites and into creeks is ultimately deposited in Lake Junaluska downstream.
According to Carr, there has been a lot of community support, both from Haywood Waterways Association and county officials, to enforce erosion policies.
Dam Break: Scale of disaster leaves community reeling
A dam broke on an irrigation pond at Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County two weeks ago unleashing hundreds of tons of mud downstream.