Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of HRWC…

The river’s champion: Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

By Tom Bennett
Brasstown community, Cherokee Co., N.C., Aug. 3, 2015 –

The Earth is “a closed system and the total amount of water it contains is essentially constant,” according to the University of Cambridge in England.

Water “exists on Earth because our atmosphere keeps liquid from floating away or being disintegrated by solar radiation,” according to National Geographic’s 2010 “Water: Our Thirsty World.”

A stream of water that’s playful, mysterious and a focus of a particular environmental emphasis here is Brasstown Creek. Disrespectful of lines on maps, it’s a multi-state tributary of the Hiwassee River, a notable waterway worth protecting. I sat brooding upon its creek banks on a recent morning. I watched its dark water swirl in a cycle I realized was not starting and ending here, but one that is planetary.

So I imagined to myself, in their long travels where might these molecules of water have been? In the Danube, Amazon, Nile or Yangzte rivers that cross whole continents? Or have any of them escaped polar ice caps now melting at the rate of nine percent each decade?

Liquid water is an essential ingredient for life. Pollution ruins it for human consumption. Of these two facts and their immense ramifications, you would have to say there’s been a heightened grasping of them here since the 1970 Earth Day and 1972 amended Clean Water Act. So even here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s clear an environmental movement of sorts managed to penetrate in. Yet distrust still lingers.

“The mountain people are perversely suspicious of anything they don’t understand,” Horace Kephart wrote in “Our Southern Highlanders” in 1913.

Making U.S. conservation history, the Chattahoochee, Cherokee and Nantahala national forests were established in 1920; the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934.

However, the vast set-asides essentially framed and boxed in a hardened core of private lands where individual rights are fiercely defended. If the mountain people’s activities in remaining private lands erode the soil and pollute the streams, well, these developments may be unfortunate but they’re taken as justifiable consequences of living free of government interference.

So in retrospect, what three Soil and Water Conservation Service District (SWCD) chairmen in an area of about 1,000 square miles in far north Georgia and far western North Carolina achieved in 1994 was pretty remarkable.

The three were Thomas Little, Cherokee County, N.C. SWCD; Clay Logan of Clay County, N.C. SWCD; and Nelson Daves of the Blue Ridge Mountain SWCD of Blue Ridge, Ga. They and the county commission chairmen of Cherokee and Clay counties in N.C. and Towns and Union counties in Ga. signed a memorandum of agreement June 6, 1994. They agreed to “unite efforts to improve water quality by forming the Upper Hiawassee Watershed Water Quality Coalition.

“The watershed approach allows the opportunity to address critical pollution sources across the entire drainage area to better protect water quality of the river,” their pact states.

Logan of Clay County then and now is a thoughtful and popular figure. His papers dominate the coalition’s early records. There even is a six-page speech he delivered to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and National Resources Defense Council at a meeting here (“Our water doesn’t slow down at the state line, though it does at a dam or two”). All this supports Logan’s assertion that he founded today’s (as the name evolved) Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (HRWC), and I can’t quarrel with it.

Attorney Richard Stancil of Guntre & Stancil of Hiawassee, Ga., completed HRWC’s Georgia incorporation Aug. 22, 1995 (the date that is celebrated in this year’s anniversary party). The Stancil bill for that work states “Atty fee incorporation $137.05” but then farther down adds, “Balance due 0.00.”

About a month later, the coalition gained Internal Revenue Service designation as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with employer identification number 56-1970878.

The time was right for change. In 1995, the Russian space station Mir welcomed aboard the first Americans. Two British scientists cloned a sheep. Atlanta, once a sleepy state capitol competing for commerce with Birmingham, was prepping for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

In 1995 as this intended “federal inter-agency model for cooperation” was launched, key leaders were Democrats. They were President Bill Clinton, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and N.C. Gov. Jim Martin. Miller is from Young Harris in this watershed. Stancil was a key aide to Miller’s predecessor as governor, the Republican Joe Frank Harris of Cartersville. Stancil now is Hiawassee City Manager and has guided the upgrade of its water treatment plant. The Ga. Secretary of State who for a time oversaw HRWC’s annual corporation papers, Cathy Cox, now is president of Young Harris College in this watershed.

Unattributed to any writer and undated, the coalition’s historical materials include the imaginative five-page “Hiwassee Basin Initiative.” It begins by describing how this work was started, it says, by the Southeast Natural Resource Leadership Group in early fiscal-year 1996.The group’s acronym settled on the formidable SENRLG. It would, according to this anonymous document, “identify opportunities for collaborative efforts… in a basin of 7,000 square kilometers in 10 counties of western North Carolina, Georgia and east Tennessee.” A 1997 letter from Clay Logan to a National Park Service official in the regional office in Atlanta assigns the Hiwassee watershed’s “ecosystem partnership effort” to come under “the umbrella of the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere.” SENRLG now was joined by SAMB, and the latter continues to do its work today from Pisgah Forest, N.C. It is “made up of 11 federal and 3 state natural resource agencies” – but I found only the 1997 reference in records of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition.

The scope of the watershed’s work eventually narrowed, settling on the approximately 1,000 square miles between– on the west — the coordinates -84.233144 35.258342 at Shuler Creek at the N.C.-Tennessee state line and –on the east — the coordinates -83.574279 35.035542 at Shooting Creek. This data was provided in 2015 by Cherokee Co., N.C., GIS Mapping.

There were paradoxes to be dealt with. The Upper Hiwassee is farther south on the U.S. map than the Lower Hiwassee, because the river flows north. This direction the river takes exempted it from a three-state “water war” for content of south-flowing rivers. The 18-county metropolitan Atlanta region tries to monopolize the water for big reservoirs above the city. Tennessee certainly objected. Meanwhile, downstream in Georgia, the local governments all the way to the Gulf of Mexico fight for their fair share. The Hiwassee’s northerly flow may mean lower priorities in state planning for water assistance.

ON A BRIGHT DAY OF HOPE when a memorandum of agreement was signed in June 1994, it appears the coalition imagined the governments of the four counties would be voluntarily paying dues forever. Stern letters went out advising that non-payment amounted to resignation from the coalition. However, no statute in either state’s code mandates county-by-county support for good 501(c)(3)’s like this one. Had any of the four counties in ’94 adopted a fiscal-year budget resolution establishing HRWC had an entitlement, the next cycle of commissioners sworn in with a personal-property rights majority might have revoked it by the first meeting.

An anonymous document ticks off accomplishments of the incorporation and first three years.

  • In 1994, “formal agreement among counties and districts…conducted over 20 public meetings.”
  • In 1995, “Lake Chatuge Fisheries Water Quality Plan by Ga. and N.C. wildlife biologists…membership fish fry…committees formed.”
  • In 1996, “Incorporation (wrong, it was the previous year)…Water education grant from TVA for $35,000…survey conducted…tour conducted…access-road (improvement) booklets secured…video initiated”; and
  • In 1997, “stream-bank stabilization…vortex weirs.”
  • Gil Nicolson, a former employee of a Cambridge, Mass., firm that consulted for corporations here and abroad on water-quality issues, became HRWC’s first part-time employee May 19, 1997, according to the Towns County Sentinel. In a letter or two during that period, Clay Logan referred to this gentle, kind and intelligent man who attended the University of Florida as “Dr. Gilbert Nicolson.” This led to him being so named in Dwight Otwell’s articles in the Towns County Sentinel.

    Nicolson undertook staggering tasks at his telephone and computer at his Clay County, N.C., home and later at a donated workspace that was “the old Towns County Water and Sewer Authority building at 1467 Mining Gap Trail,” according to the Sentinel.

    Well-meaning board members in rhetorical sweeps on papers exchanged spiritedly among them had charted a staggering world-class project. Nicolson was to leverage the federal alphabet soup to make the Hiwassee watershed a “national ecosystem model.” He would reel in big grants. He would persuade property owners along streams to enter cost-sharing arrangements to restore the creek banks, and sustain environmental zeal and keep those property owners paying their bills for years. The Georgia and North Carolina legislatures would fall in line to enact, and their governors to sign, uniformly worded statutes regulating this watershed. Local governments would be billed and promptly pay annual support, lest they receive sharp reprimands. In the Adopt-a-Stream initiative, the waters in four good-sized TVA lakes would be systematically monitored for their dissolved oxygen and benthos. This would be at various times by TVA employees; by HRWC contractors; or by HRWC volunteers. This data would systematically be logged and form a scientific record.

    In these early years, a pattern did emerge in which significant leaders from the four counties agreed to serve on the coalition board. They did so despite being at some risk – for this is a region where Horace Kephart in the same century had found so many of the mountain people suspicious of anything they did not understand.

    In addition to having their names published as coalition board members, these early standouts also aided Logan and Nicolson with their time, money and travel. These they gave readily, by all accounts, in order to establish an effective citizen oversight group for one of the nation’s important natural heritages, namely this watershed.

    Clay Logan’s valedictory for the coalition are in the March 3, 2003 Clay County Progress of Hayesville, N.C. The reporter quoted him as follows:

    “I’m proud of what the coalition has been able to accomplish. Great things can be expected in the future because the coalition is grounded in the community through its ties to the counties and soil and water districts.”

    The four TVA lakes within the 1,000-square-mile purview of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition are in effect large sluices for water moving quickly to dams. They are Hiwassee, 1940, capacity 205,600 acre-feet; Chatuge, 1942, capacity 62,600 acre-feet; Nottely, 1042, 61,600 acre-feet; and Apalachia, 1943, a “run of the river” lake in which the water doesn’t stay long enough for the TVA site to even state an acre-feet amount. When a siren sounds, if you’re on it or its banks, get to high ground fast.

    In the HRWC “WATR column” in 2006, after studying and holding in my hands TVA original documents in the National Archives Southeast Branch in Morrow, Ga., this retired journalist and HRWC volunteer wrote as follows:

    UNTIL THE THREAT of a world war loomed on the horizon, the Hiwassee Dam turbines turned with the clear purpose of achieving TVA’s lofty goals of that first decade. These were to provide jobs and turn on the lights, generating electricity to improve the lives of the people while also preventing flooding downstream.

    However, I came to believe this isn’t true for the 1941-43 Nottely, Chatuge and Apalachia dams. The actual records of the engineers themselves describe how those three were built in a hurry to store more water for Hiwassee Dam. Nottely and Chatuge took only about eight months, Apalachia, which is cement concrete like Hiwassee, took longer.

    Together these dams joined a giant system making power to help the U.S. defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy in the World War then starting up in Europe. Soon it would be formally entered by the U.S., after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Specifically, TVA power helped make warplanes, conventional munitions and the atomic bomb.

    “The Nottely project is one of four Hiwassee Basin dams authorized by the Congress on July 16, 1941 as an emergency national defense measure,” an unnamed TVA manager wrote in “The Nottely Project on the Nottely River, a Preliminary Report, July 1941.”

    He or she goes on to say: “The purpose is to make available the storage capacity of the reservoir in the shortest feasible period of time to provide power for the present National Defense system.”

    TVA served two main customers. The first, Alcoa Aluminum Company of America, made aluminum for airplanes at its plant south of Knoxville. A second client was the euphemistically named Clinton Engineer Works. This ultimately massive plant was located near Clinton, Tenn., and became surrounded by the new town of Alcoa. The works were part of the Manhattan Project, the biggest secret of the war. Its aim was for the U.S. to beat Germany in creating an atomic bomb, and the U.S. did. Oak Ridge made the elements of nuclear-materials production. To know this, you don’t have to drive to Morrow. You can read about it in the article “TVA goes to war” on its web site.

    THE RUSH OF WATER through large lakes to make hydroelectric power renders them slick-sided troughs. It’s the tributaries where there’s a need for the restoration of the banks, removal of invasive plants that could spread across the watershed and the restoring of meandering by streams hereafter really absurd channelization by unschooled would at the steering wheels of Backhoes.

    Lucy Cole Gratton was the first paid executive director of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition in 2001-03. A trained accountant, she was first to systematize reimbursement paperwork for grants. “I didn’t know the first thing about running a not-for-profit, but I was good at organization,” Gratton said.

    The address of the nation’s newest environmental non-profit on Mining Gap Road in Towns County itself suggested an extent of unchecked erosion that had occurred during the years of neglect.

    The roof of a shed donated by the Towns County government leaked when it rained, she recalled, and mice showing their contempt for computers moved about inside a digital printer and left their unmistakable evidence.

    In 1999, the first grant had been received from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund in Raleigh, N.C. “A woman who was (then CWMTF director) Bill Holman’s assistant kept the books. Both parties, the trust fund and HRWC, were new (to environmental protection),” Gratton recalled.

    Brasstown Creek. An unattributed 1995 draft work plan of the newly incorporated Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition had called for Brasstown Creek to be the focus of a “sub-watershed plan as a mirror model – inventory, monitor, assess, evaluate and implement.”

    In 1999, the coalition was awarded $2.1 million by CWMTF for work in the Brasstown Creek watershed, according to the “TVA River Partners” web site (that was created for an admirable entity of TVA that no longer exists).

    The N.C. government entity with an initial outlay of $100 million certainly must have seen in the sewer-authority shed on Mining Gap Road no danger of a lot of wild excessive spending on the office and its furnishings.

    The coalition signed a three-year contract, according to the Clay County Progress in North Carolina. Josh Billock of the Clay Co. Soil and Water Conservation District told the newspaper that $1.6 million was for stream bank restoration and $96,000 was to repair bare areas.

    The writer M. Blekfeld-Sztraky of the Towns County Sentinel in Georgia wrote a vivid account in the year 2000 about the work at the star-crossed stream. “No one fishes Brasstown Creek,” Blekfeld-Sztraky wrote.

    “Brasstown Creek has been declared polluted by both Georgia and North Carolina,” said Hugh Mitchell, HRWC board chairman.
    The June 2001 Cherokee Scout report by the newspaper in Murphy, N.C. certainly was optimistic with the headline, “Creek itself again.” This article focused on work at Little Brasstown Creek within the campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School.

    There’s a summary of work to date at the “TVA River Partners” site that still can be Googled and from what’s covered in it, I can best-guess the date to be 2005. Here it is:

    “Working with 32 landowners, HRWC helped to restore more than five miles of stream, create and protect 45 acres of riparian buffer, and re-vegetate 160 acres of critically eroding bare areas.”

    CALLIE MOORE can catch a bass and build a weir. She can seem to be in three places at once directing volunteers or rushing to meetings with elected officials who may have taken office about as informed as newborn babes. She can teach and lead Adopt-a-stream water-quality testing involving chemistry that baffles volunteers like me but is learned by others; schedule events, understand media deadlines and be a skilled publicist; and achieve the work of ten with a staff of three juggling part-timers to cover the phones and keep multiple endeavors on track. She can testify as an expert at public hearings across North Carolina and be the most engaging person in the room. She can win over the most indifferent local-government officials — save the new breed of arch-conservatives that now are flexing muscle.

    With her Western Carolina University and University of Indiana degrees, Moore (who when hired by HRWC in 2003 was single and signed her name Callie Dobson) brought youth and know-how. Gil Nicolson and Lucy Cole Gratton remained close at hand as devoted volunteers.

    Valley River. As this is written, a September 2015 opening is envisioned for the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprises’ Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel located east of Murphy, N.C. and fronting the named river.

    The Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition has made significant restoration efforts along the Valley, a tributary of the Hiwassee. At the same time, there exist environmental horrors along its battered length. The latter make its appearance in the name of a U.S. tourist destination tragically wrongheaded, at least until much more work is done.

    According to the October 2001 minutes, the coalition was to receive $400,000 from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund for “the first year of the Valley River project.”

    In October 2003, the Cherokee Scout of Murphy, N.C. reported that two areas of the Valley River had been approved for restoration. They were Andrews Recreation Park and, in the second case, land owned by the Wood family and Cherokee Co. government.

    The next month’s HRWC minutes, in November 2003, have the notation that the Wood brothers want to be HRWC’s contractor for work on their farm – and, these minutes state, that would not be a conflict of interest. However, in the same meeting, Eddie Wood decided to resign from the HRWC board.

    The April 1, 2004 minutes report that someone on the board estimated the Valley River restoration project “would be the biggest anyone has done in North Carolina.”

    To the east of the Wood farm in the politically tempestuous town of Andrews there is a sewer that estimates for a grant application put in need of $1 million of work. The Andrews Journal reported every town’s nightmare in its March 28, 2013 edition. Here it is by Stacy Green: “A defect in the sewer line caused raw sewage to spill into Ricky and Kandy Barnard’s Valleytown Realty office on Main Street.”

    To the west of the Wood farm, there is a North Carolina environmental disaster that continues to exist because Cherokee County has a 2010 Solid Waste clean-up ordinance for open-dump areas that’s toothless.

    If you dodge the traffic to cross the four-lane U.S. 19-74-129, moving north across from the bridge into the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel to the other side, and then walk 80 of my paces through a grove of trees, you will come upon a tableau of a U.S. environmental despair.

    Marble Creek, a Valley River tributary, has undergone channelization and along its incongruous straight-line banks there operates a large auto salvage yard. Old cars are piled atop each other. Overhead there extends a 74-foot-long, 38-foot-high timber trestle remaining from the abandoned 19th century railroad from Andrews to Murphy.

    Americans love the soil and the water and there is such a multiplicity of environmental grants available, and Executive Director Callie Moore is so adept at getting them, that recent moves by Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina and the General Assembly must not be overstated as ruinous.

    Yet these are the facts: “The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which since its inception in 1996 has distributed more than $200 million in grants in the region and more than $977 million statewide, has seen its funding fall by nearly 90 percent in the past two budget cycles and faces an even deeper cut this year,” Kirk Ross wrote on the Carolina Public Press web site in May 2013.

    The impacts of all this at one environmental non-profit are apparent in this entry in the Jan. 13, 2014 HRWC board minutes:

    “Callie Moore reported that there have been significant changes in state environmental agencies, particularly in North Carolina. New divisions have been created with professionals reassigned to new positions. The former N.C. Division of Water Quality has been completely restructured and no longer exists under that name. The primary regulatory programs are now under the Division of Water Resources and there is a whole new division called the Division of Watershed Infrastructure that will handle water and sewer projects, as well as manage some funding for storm-water projects. These items were removed from project consideration by the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

    “Callie expressed to the board the need for her to make a trip to Raleigh to figure out the new structure and reestablish relationships with people she knows to ensure that the Hiwassee River watershed isn’t forgotten. She further reported that she is able to catch a ride to Raleigh Jan. 21-22 and by staying with a friend downtown, the trip will not cost the coalition anything in expenses. She will meet with as many people as she can in these new divisions and at the Clean Water Management Trust Fund during her visit.”

    The April 14, 2014 minutes reflect how Moore called on the directors “to think about how hard we are willing to work to maintain our current model of operation.”

    ONE OPTION COULD BE to continue as a model for doing the grant-funded apolitical riparian tasks, but also spread wings to become a brilliantly open and transparent agency under N.C. statute 132.1 Public Records.

    Are the following news developments in this watershed ones so significant that an environmental non-profit may exercise 1789 freedom of speech and take positions on them, yea or nay? I believe they are, and it can.

    This century, an Appalachian Developmental Highway System corridor would tunnel under Snowbird Mountain in both directions. An immense amount of rock and soil blasted away would be spread in the valley from the mountain west to Robbinsville. That valley has the lacy network of streams in it that brighten, enhance and make notable any Appalachian valley.

    Seven local families know their way around the Clay County, N.C., deed room far better than Americans from other states who have a singular desire. It is to enjoy the beauty and splendor of the Nantahala National Forest, and keep it pristine. The local insiders bought a 50-acre inholding incongruously far inside it, on the crest of the Valley River Mountains that is the dividing line between Clay and Cherokee counties. A tannery once harvested hemlock at this site to bust hair off leather. The forest completely surrounds this inholding where the owners plan primitive cabins. They lost a bid for an improved dirt path straight up Phillips Ridge on the Clay County side, above the watershed’s elite stream Fires Creek.A June 2015 draft decision notice by U.S. Forest Service outlines the private owners’ responsibility for roads and protection of Fires Creek; and

    The Energy Modernization Act of 2014 makes it North Carolina law for the state to be hydraulically fractured in speculative searches for oil and gas.

    What lies ahead for Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition in its third decade?