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Revitalizing Sinking Creek

March 8th, 2012 9:24 pm by Amanda Marsh

Revitalizing Sinking Creek

With waders and testing supplies in hand, several eager students headed down the bank to a stretch of Sinking Creek that runs underneath Joe Carr Road. Like clockwork, each person handled his or her specific task with ease, collecting samples to take back to the lab while also looking at some of the creatures living in the water.
Cory Click and Steve McQueen, both graduate students in the Department of Environmental Health at East Tennessee State University, carried a kickscreen up the creek and submerged it for a few moments. Once they lifted it out of the water, the thin screen held some sediment, a crayfish and a few mayflies and stoneflies.
The number of these critters found in the water is an indication of the stream’s health. Kurt Maier, a professor of environmental health at ETSU, says the number of flies in this section of Sinking Creek isn’t what they’d like to see, but improvements are being made.
Sinking Creek gained a reputation due to the E. coli contamination that placed it on the 303(d) list of “impaired streams” issued by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Further awareness about the problems plaguing Sinking Creek has come from concerned citizens like Bill Francisco, a Johnson City attorney whose son Jacob died in 2004 from complications of an E. coli infection. He and the members of the Boone Watershed Partnership continue to work on the Sinking Creek Restoration Project.
Phil Scheuerman, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at ETSU, calls Sinking Creek a laboratory where students learn how to conduct water quality studies and theorize about the possible sources of contamination and the solutions, or best management practices, that would remediate the stream.
The group that most recently sampled a portion of Sinking Creek is no stranger to the area. Graduate student Clara McClure has been there at least 10 times and Scheurerman says it’s common for students to build their entire theses on data collected from Sinking Creek.
The testers used a flowmeter to find how fast the water was moving and they collected numerous samples of the water that they will analyze for traces of E. coli, nitrates and phosphates as well as basic information like pH, salinity and dissolved oxygen.
Scheurerman has been leading groups to the site for various projects over a 10-year period and at one point was testing every month when funding was provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now water sampling at Sinking Creek is more random, but the ETSU Environmental Health Department is seeking funds from the National Science Foundation so that it may continue the monitoring process. They often compare data collected from portions of the stream that run through urban areas to data from a “reference point” near Buffalo Mountain where Sinking Creek is more stable.
“Sinking Creek is a typical stream for the watershed in East Tennessee in that it runs from a forested, relatively low-activity (area), through agricultural and urban areas,” Scheurerman said. “Because of that it does have some stresses on it.”
Additionally, Scheuerman says it’s those stresses that have put Sinking Creek on the 303(d) list. Contamination from agriculture usage, failing septic tanks and runoff are contributors.
To best predict the source of contamination and the best management practices, long-term studies are needed. Examples of possible best management practices include fencing cattle out of the stream, placing shrubbery along the bank to trap runoff and filter it out, enhancing the canopy over the stream, which affects water temperature, and bank restoration.
Scheuerman says the Boone Watershed Partnership is already implementing many of these best management practices that could save other streams such as Boones Creek, Cash Hollow Creek and Beaver Creek that are facing the same kinds of threats as Sinking Creek.
“There are a lot of streams that are being impacted by human activity as we expand through the area,” Scheuerman said. “Streams are almost all in a state where they can easily be restored to a clean condition. They may not look like they did before all the impact, but they can be restored to a condition where they wouldn’t be listed as impaired.”
And even though a lot of attention has been placed on Sinking Creek, it’s not the worst.
“It probably falls in the middle of the spectrum of water quality issues in the area,” Scheuerman said.
With so many sampling sources, students studying environmental health don’t have to stare at a textbook for hypothetical problems and solutions. There’s a number of real projects needing attention locally.
“We have a gold mine here in terms of opportunities for students to see some really hands-on, interesting issues and participate in the solution,” Scheuerman said.
“I’d like to see us be more active at implementing these best management practices to try and demonstrate that we can clean some of these streams up, but that’s going to take people, money and time.”With waders and testing supplies in hand, several eager students headed down the bank to a stretch of Sinking Creek that runs underneath Joe Carr Road. Like clockwork, each person handled his or her specific task with ease, collecting samples to take back to the lab while also looking at some of the creatures living in the water.
Cory Click and Steve McQueen, both graduate students in the Department of Environmental Health at East Tennessee State University, carried a kickscreen up the creek and submerged it for a few moments. Once they lifted it out of the water, the thin screen held some sediment, a crayfish and a few mayflies and stoneflies.
The number of these critters found in the water is an indication of the stream’s health. Kurt Maier, a professor of environmental health at ETSU, says the number of flies in this section of Sinking Creek isn’t what they’d like to see, but improvements are being made.
Sinking Creek gained a reputation due to the E. coli contamination that placed it on the 303(d) list of “impaired streams” issued by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Further awareness about the problems plaguing Sinking Creek has come from concerned citizens like Bill Francisco, a Johnson City attorney whose son Jacob died in 2004 from complications of an E. coli infection. He and the members of the Boone Watershed Partnership continue to work on the Sinking Creek Restoration Project.
Phil Scheuerman, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at ETSU, calls Sinking Creek a laboratory where students learn how to conduct water quality studies and theorize about the possible sources of contamination and the solutions, or best management practices, that would remediate the stream.
The group that most recently sampled a portion of Sinking Creek is no stranger to the area. Graduate student Clara McClure has been there at least 10 times and Scheurerman says it’s common for students to build their entire theses on data collected from Sinking Creek.
The testers used a flowmeter to find how fast the water was moving and they collected numerous samples of the water that they will analyze for traces of E. coli, nitrates and phosphates as well as basic information like pH, salinity and dissolved oxygen.
Scheurerman has been leading groups to the site for various projects over a 10-year period and at one point was testing every month when funding was provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now water sampling at Sinking Creek is more random, but the ETSU Environmental Health Department is seeking funds from the National Science Foundation so that it may continue the monitoring process. They often compare data collected from portions of the stream that run through urban areas to data from a “reference point” near Buffalo Mountain where Sinking Creek is more stable.
“Sinking Creek is a typical stream for the watershed in East Tennessee in that it runs from a forested, relatively low-activity (area), through agricultural and urban areas,” Scheurerman said. “Because of that it does have some stresses on it.”
Additionally, Scheuerman says it’s those stresses that have put Sinking Creek on the 303(d) list. Contamination from agriculture usage, failing septic tanks and runoff are contributors.
To best predict the source of contamination and the best management practices, long-term studies are needed. Examples of possible best management practices include fencing cattle out of the stream, placing shrubbery along the bank to trap runoff and filter it out, enhancing the canopy over the stream, which affects water temperature, and bank restoration.
Scheuerman says the Boone Watershed Partnership is already implementing many of these best management practices that could save other streams such as Boones Creek, Cash Hollow Creek and Beaver Creek that are facing the same kinds of threats as Sinking Creek.
“There are a lot of streams that are being impacted by human activity as we expand through the area,” Scheuerman said. “Streams are almost all in a state where they can easily be restored to a clean condition. They may not look like they did before all the impact, but they can be restored to a condition where they wouldn’t be listed as impaired.”
And even though a lot of attention has been placed on Sinking Creek, it’s not the worst.
“It probably falls in the middle of the spectrum of water quality issues in the area,” Scheuerman said.
With so many sampling sources, students studying environmental health don’t have to stare at a textbook for hypothetical problems and solutions. There’s a number of real projects needing attention locally.
“We have a gold mine here in terms of opportunities for students to see some really hands-on, interesting issues and participate in the solution,” Scheuerman said.
“I’d like to see us be more active at implementing these best management practices to try and demonstrate that we can clean some of these streams up, but that’s going to take people, money and time.”


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