In 2013 The Orianne Society (TOS), Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School (RGNS), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR) Wildlife Resources Division, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered to begin a project aimed at improving water quality in the Little Tennessee watershed by focusing on decreasing sedimentation into Sutton Branch in northeast Georgia on property owned by RGNS.
Reducing sedimentation and animal waste entering Sutton Branch is extremely important to protecting and conserving water quality and biological health in the Little Tennessee watershed. Sutton Branch flows directly into Betty’s Creek, one of the most biologically-intact streams in Georgia’s portion of the Little Tennessee watershed. Betty’s Creek provides habitat for five Georgia state-protected aquatic species. Four of these species—the Eastern Hellbender, Little Tennessee Crayfish, Greenfin Darter and Fatlips Minnow—are known to occur immediately downstream of the confluence of Sutton Branch and Betty’s Creek. The Eastern Hellbender and Little Tennessee Crayfish have been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Much of the land owned by RGNS is leased for cattle grazing, including the acreage surrounding Sutton Branch. Historically, cattle accessed Sutton Branch directly in multiple places to drink, resulting in degraded water quality. The partnership used expertise from all the partners to develop a plan funded by the USFWS and implemented by RGNS to minimize livestock’s direct use of the stream. This was done by erecting fencing limiting cattle access to Sutton Branch, reducing the width of existing cattle crossings by half; gating two existing crossings and eliminating another; creating hard-packed cattle ramps at the remaining crossings; and providing alternative water sources in surrounding fields so that cattle have little need to access the stream for water.
The existing cattle crossings were over 32 feet in width before the project, with some crossings being open for cattle to go down or upstream rather than traveling over to the other bank. The result was cattle spending long periods of time in the stream, with increased sedimentation and animal waste entering Sutton Branch. The ramps constructed under this project reduced stream crossings widths to 16 feet, fenced off access upstream and downstream of the crossing, and significantly reduced sediment runoff at the crossings due to the hard-packed surface. The four new watering stations, which are supplied by private wells owned by RGNS, are in upland fields and placed on thick cement pads surrounded by hard-packed gravel. Cattle now have little need to access Sutton Branch and are using the watering stations, which will provide cool and clean water year round.
The USFWS is pleased with the technical expertise that NRCS provided on the project design and with the excellent work that RGNS did on the project construction. Deborah Harris of the USFWS said, “We are also very excited that the RGNS teachers engaged their students in the project through their pre and post-construction water quality monitoring in Sutton Branch and Betty’s Creek. This metric will be a good measure of success of the project.”
The results of this conservation project not only benefit the species listed above, but also game species such as trout, white-tailed deer and black bear, all of which need access to clean, unpolluted water. Historically, Appalachian streams have been highly degraded by poor land management practices. Most lowland reaches of Appalachian streams are surrounded by active agricultural operations and residential development, which can cause problems if not implemented correctly. More conservation partnerships to implement similar projects are needed to improve water quality for drinking, irrigation, fishing and outdoor recreation and to maintain the scenic beauty of these mountains and the Little Tennessee watershed.
Dr. Chris Jenkins of TOS said of the project, “This provides a great example of how partnerships between federal and state agencies, nonprofits, and private land owners can have big impacts on the conservation of rare and endangered species as well as entire landscapes.”