Local Experts Explain Threat to Tuckaseegee River

The Tuckasegee River is one of Jackson County’s most characteristic natural beauties. Utilized in fishing, kayaking, tubing and other recreational activities, the river is an integral part of Jackson Country for its citizens and the students of Western Carolina University. However, some citizens and organizations have raised concerns that the water quality and wildlife of the Tuckasegee River may be threatened by development in the surrounding mountains.

Some of you may have followed the coverage by the Sylva Herald or other local newspapers concerning a development company called Legasus Properties. The company has announced plans to construct a project called River Rock, a collective name for five non-continuous gated communities planned to stretch across 3,500 acres from Lake Glenville to Moody Bridge in East LaPorte.

The homes in the River Rock developments would range in price from the high $700,000s to $6 million, mostly serving as second-homes for people who live outside of Western North Carolina. One of the gated communities, called Webster Creek, would be developed on a 1,810 acre tract on the side of Cullowhee Mountain in the Tuckasegee community. Webster Creek would hold 828 houses and two golf courses.

Citizens in the Tuckasegee community raised concerns about the 3,890 linear feet of stream channels that would be affected by the proposed development. A small area of wetlands is also found in the site. Though Jackson County passed a moratorium freezing subdivision development on March 8, 2007, the Webster Creek development was granted “vested rights” by Jackson County Planning Director Linda Cable and given exemption to the moratorium.

Concerns over the impact of developments such as those of Legasus Properties have been vocalized in editorials and letters to local publications, at community meetings, and through organizations such as The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River (WATR), a volunteer organization that monitors and identifies pollution and its sources in the Tuck.

“The more intensive the development, the more the changes to the environment,” said Dr. Roger Clapp, executive director for WATR. “Many mountain areas can’t take intense development. You’re changing large areas of the forest, the grass, the natural stream buffers. Our problem with Legasus is the apparent intensity of it.”

According to Clapp two of the major threats to the Tuckasegee are sedimentation/erosion and habitat degradation.

Sedimentation occurs when plant cover is removed from mountain sides. Without plants to hold in the sediment, rain may easily cause erosion.

“Different developments have different impacts. When people really play by the rules, they do a good job. But when people don’t enforce the rules, don’t put up the erosion control covers, we get a total mess,” said Clapp. “An unprotected acre or two acres can deliver more mud [into the river] than a seven mile undeveloped watershed.”

Dr. Thomas Martin of WCU’s Biology Department offered a similar statement. When asked what he felt was the biggest threat to the Tuckasegee River, Martin responded “Development and sedimentation is the #1 local problem.”

Apart from creating ugly murky water, sediment in steams posses a threat to the natural habitats of the Tuck. Sediment eventually settles down into the stream bottom, where it can pose a threat to organisms and their habitats. The Appalachian Elk Toe, an endangered fresh-water mussel living in the Tuckasegee, is one such species that is being threatened by the effects of sedimentation. While the Appalachian Elk Toe is not a niche species, meaning its eradication will not cause a disastrous cascade effect on the bio-system of the Tuck, loss of fresh-water mussels has been linked to a loss of aquatic insects, which trout feed off of. Loss of trout in the Tuckasegee River will have an obvious impact on both recreational fishing and tourism.

Martin said that the hazards of development are not only traced to subdivisions.

“All developments, not just large-scale ones such as Legasus effect the environment. Every time we create a niche in the hillside there’s erosion and sedimentation,” said Martin.

Martin points to heavy rains common in this region in the early summer-months. Two years ago, such rains washed sediment not held in by plant cover into the Tuckasegee making the water run muddy for almost two months.

“I’m not saying people should pack up and move, but it’s just the truth of the matter. Foresting affects the watershed. You can’t have a ‘no impact development.'”

Under current legislation, North Carolina does not require permits for developments coving less than an acre. Clapp stated that these local developments are still liable to be inspected by county governments to ensure erosion control procedures are being used, but admits that these inspections might not always occur with regularity.

“I try to remain positive, but I think we could do better. We need to tighten up, make sure these inspections happen. Just tighten our policies up,” Clapp said.

The most publicized concern cause by development around the Tuckasegee community is the impact of irrigation for the development on the groundwater supply for Tuckasegee residents. Specifically in dispute is how Webster Creek will manage to irrigate its two golf courses, as well as provide water for its residents, without draining the supply of its neighbors.

Jim Pitts, president of Legasus Properties, has announced plans to use “waste water” for golf course irrigation. Waste water, more specifically called grey water, is essentially made up from discharged water from domestic homes or commercials properties-water that may not be good for consumption, but could be used in irrigation. In fact grey water has been used in irrigation for years and can reduce water needs for subdivisions such as Webster Creek, but WATR and other Jackson County citizens have raised concerns as to how droughts, such as the one experienced by Jackson County for the last few years, and the other irrigation needs of subdivisions will effect the availability of grey water.

“They [Legasus] may plan to use grey water, but grey water has to come from somewhere to begin with,” said Martin in reference to the drought.

There are many restrictions towards what sources can be tapped for grey water, and though reuse of some water within the development is certainly better than none at all, the question has been raised as to whether or not Webster Creek can support its irrigation needs based solely on grey water.

“We are skeptical. They need to show us a plan that is clear and professionally written,” Dr. Clapp said on the matter.

When asked if he knew of any subdivision that had successfully irrigated a golf course using grey water alone, Clapp responded, “No. We’ve looked around… but no.”

Dr. Martin provided a more direct answer. “That’s an impossibility, even with a small scale development,” he said.

Even though nearly all of the Webster Creek houses would likely be second homes and possibly not occupied throughout the year, Dr. Clapp insists that addressing how water needs in the subdivision will affect other Tuckasegee residents is still a concern.

“One of the things that people haven’t fully realized is we don’t even know the occupancy,” Clap said. “Will it be15% or 80%? What will it be during holidays? Do they stay second homes for 56 years? I don’t know.”

Martin cautions that any construction can and will affect water availability.

“Even cutting in a driveway has an effect. You’re suddenly changing local hydrology. And these subdivisions are obviously on a larger scale than that. “

If Webster Creek does need to tap into the Tuckasegee watershed to irrigate its golf course, Clapp and WATR feel this is something the public needs to know.

“We’re concerned about water availability. We want to see a water plan that addresses conditions like those in the last two years of drought. How can there be assurances for neighbors that their well won’t go dry because of the development?”

As of yet, actual construction on the Webster Creek property has no begun. According to Dr. Clapp, WATR has been informed by Pitts that the development remains in the financing stages, and has not proceeded to phase two-planning and construction.

Local publications have reported that Legasus has lost investors as a result of the recession, and may be unable to find the funds to proceed with the project. However, those opposed to mountain development will not find complete triumph in this news, as it is always likely development will continue, either through Legasus or another company.

“These properties have been bid up in value and it seems likely that they will be developed,” Clapp said. “But there are more ecologically sound developments-where a fair amount of land is put into ‘Forever Wild’ trusts or conservancies, or where community gardening is encouraged. Those are the kinds of things we look for and hope to see.”

Clapp also identified two other threats to the Tuckasegee that are not limited to subdivisions: fecal coliform and litter. Fecal coliform, what Martin explains as “gut bacteria,” is the bacteria found in the guts of most mammals, and its presence in rivers can indicate straight piping, or the direct dumping of raw sewage into the river.

Straight piping was a common practice in the early parts of the century but was banned with the passage of clean water legislation in 1977. However, Martin cautions that many older communities in WNC may have homes that still contain a straight piping system, and current and prospective owners may be unaware of the nature of the pipes in their house.

Organizations such as WCU’s Tuckaseigee River Cleanup allow students to help reduce the amount of litter and its effects on the river. The event is held every April and more information can be found at www.wcu.edu/univcenter/outdoors.

Clapp encourages Western students who are interested in issues affecting the Tuckasegee to take ecological or earth science classes during their time at WCU. Students may also volunteer at WATR doing creek clean-ups or planting buffer areas along the creek and hill-sides to combat erosion. A summer internship will also be offered with WATR. Previous studies in science or science education is preferred, though not required.