Their eyes were fixed on the creek bed, their shoulders bowed. Their boots, anchored by heavy waders, churned sandy, ginger-colored soil that rose like swirling clouds in the water. Two men took hold of wooden poles on opposite sides of a large white net and pulled the net slowly through the water. The men pulled the net to the surface plucking one bait-sized fish after another from a pile that collected in the center.
“Coosa shiner,” aquatic biologist Cal Johnson would say before dropping each fish back into the creek. Or: “Hog sucker.” Or: “Red-eye bass.”
The biologists were taking part in a multi-agency “fish blitz” aimed at identifying and documenting the fish that live in the headwaters of Terrapin Creek and in Big Canoe Creek near Ashville and Springville. This week and next, the scientists will visit about three dozen sites along the two creeks to do biological monitoring, biologists said.
Their findings will be folded into a report by the Geological Survey of Alabama. The biologists expect that report to be used for decades to help officials and private landowners make land management decisions.
Depending upon how the findings are used, they could help restore populations of endangered spices and improve water quality across the state.
The review of the Big Canoe Creek and Terrapin Creek watersheds is just part of a much larger project, which began two years ago near Tuscaloosa. Dubbed the Alabama Strategic Habitat Unit project, the work, once completed, will give scientists and non-scientists alike comprehensive habitat information on 50 strategic watersheds in the state, said Patrick O’Neil, director of the Ecosystems Investigations Program for the Geologic Survey.
O’Neil and representatives of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alabama Clean Water Partnership met at a farm in Ashville to discuss the project with reporters Tuesday.
The farm’s owner, Bryan Burgess, said he’d learned the importance of clean water over the past decade. He said his journey began when a pig farm opened upstream of him, and animal excrement and pig bodies began floating through the places his grandchildren swam. The pig farm has since closed, Burgess said.
Water quality tests revealed there were elevated amounts of E. coli bacteria in the water, he said. In Alabama, 95 percent of land is held by private owners, and the vitality of Alabama’s waterways depends in large part on how they manage their land, O’Neil said.
It will take cooperation from people like Burgess to improve and protect the water quality in the state, biologists and clean-water advocates at the farm said, adding that Alabama’s fresh water is one of its best and most important resources.
Each year more than 33 trillion gallons of fresh water flows through 77,000 miles of Alabama streams and channels, according to the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center.
Over the past 80 years, 67 species of freshwater animals have disappeared from the state’s waterways, according to the center. Those species were lost to extinction, but the state is still known to have the greatest number of freshwater fish and mollusks in the nation.
The quality of the water is vital to the future of the state for many reasons and diversity of wildlife in those waterways is key in gauging the water’s health, O’Neil said.
“We use them as a tool to help us monitor the water system,” he said.
The sites that were selected were chosen because they are known to be home to endangered species, or because they’re drinking water sources, O’Neil said.
The habitats are being sampled in series. Fish communities, water quality and land use will all be reviewed.
O’Neil said the findings should help bridge the gap between the environmental laws that are on the books, and the ability to enforce them.
Threats to the water system can be prevented by some relatively simple land management practices, biologists say. Mounds of soil at a creek’s edge, for example, could preserve water quality by preventing contaminated runoff from entering the stream.
Change, O’Neil said, must be “based on science,” and “not just people’s desires.”
Grassroots organizations such as Friends of Big Canoe Creek are comprised of volunteer members and aim to educate land owners about how they can keep the water ways clean.
Multiple other organizations, such as the nonprofit Alabama Clean Water Partnership, are reaching out to landowners to help protect the quality of Alabama’s waterways said Kellie Johnston, a facilitator for the partnership. The data being collected by the teams of scientists in Terrapin and Big Canoe creeks this week will help, clean water advocates say.
But it’ll take more than facts and figures to improve water quality in Alabama, Johnston said, it’ll take cooperation.
“You can only work with the folks who want to work with you,” she said.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter@LJohnson_Star.