Gannon to talk about importance of little streams

WCU students are fortunate to have two headwater watersheds on campus to conduct research.

The Sustainable Energy Initiative is sponsoring an ECO Talk on Friday, April 7, focusing on water quality and river health around and near Western Carolina University.

The talk, billed as a TED Talk-like event, will be presented by WCU assistant professor of geology J.P. Gannon at 3:30 p.m. at the A.K. Hinds University Center’s Multipurpose Room. The talk is free and open to the public. It is being held as a precursor to Saturday’s (April 8) Tuck River Cleanup.

Gannon’s talk is titled “How I Learned to Start Caring about Little Streams.” His argument on why these little streams, the ones you can actually step across, are important is because they eventually lead to rivers.

“A lot of people think about those streams and they think about adding something to that stream, or polluting it in some way with their local land use, and it’s not going to be a big deal because it’s a small little stream,” Gannon said. “The quote you hear is, ‘Dilution is the solution to pollution.’ ”

But Gannon said it’s those little streams that eventually lead into waterways like the Tuckaseigee River or Cullowhee Creek.

“When we try to figure out why the water quality and water chemistry look the way it does in the Tuck or in Cullowhee Creek, where you look to find that out is in the headwaters,” Gannon said.

J.P. Gannon

Gannon added that the easiest pollutant to see is dirt. He said the residents might not think much about doing a small construction project around the little stream on their property, which leads to dirt running into the stream.

Those dirt particles travel downstream and eventually fill in the bottoms of rivers, Gannon said. They fill in pore space, which are spaces that the bugs needed in streams live in. They are also spaces where trout like to lay their eggs.

It affects the water quality and the local economy, with Jackson County billing itself as a trout-fishing destination. It also is a water treatment issue, Gannon said.

“When the Tuckaseigee River is above a certain level of turbidity, which is how you measure the cloudiness of water, the water treatment plant can’t treat the water because it can hurt some of their equipment,” he said.

Much of Gannon’s research happens on campus. WCU is fortunate to have two headwater watersheds on campus, one near the Health and Human Sciences Building and the other off Wake Robin Dr., he said.

Gannon said there are several research projects going on in those locations, mostly near the HHS building. One project that he will discuss in the talk is research being done that examines a road that crosses over one of WCU’s watersheds.

“It’s a watershed that is almost entirely forested and then we have one road, one discreet human feature, that we can look at and say, ‘What are the impacts of that?’ ” Gannon said. “We found where that road drains into a stream and we put a gauge there. We funneled all that water into a flume so we could measure how much water is coming through.

“And then we took water chemistry samples during a storm while the water was flushing off. What we found was that one drainage ditch coming off the road, that is about 1/40th of the watershed that was responsible for up to 10-12 percent of the total runoff coming out of the watershed. Over four times as much water was coming out of that spot than the rest of the watershed. And when you look at the water chemistry, it’s distinctly different on the side of the watershed that has that road input coming in.”

Gannon went on to say that having access to those watersheds is invaluable. It allows WCU students to gain research experiences in hydrology and soil science that most other colleges and universities don’t have access to, he said.

“One of the barriers to undergraduate research is getting the students to field sites,” Gannon said. “It’s hard. They have classes four or five days a week. They’re super busy and it’s hard to get them out there. But when they can go up when they have a couple of spare hours and collect data, that’s insanely valuable. Even if it were an hour away, you couldn’t do that. We’re giving students experiences in that watershed that they couldn’t get at most universities in the country, regardless of how big and impressive they are.”