Wading into the Water Quality Debate

(Appeared in Blue Ridge Press Syndicate, 11/13/2001)

The debate about water quality in the Southeast has taken on new urgency this fall. While state environmental protection agencies, such as South Carolina’s and Georgia’s, push for new water pollution controls, developers and public utilities fight higher standards. As the EPA steps in to manage water quality monitoring in West Virginia, the region’s Chambers of Commerce warn against the economic impact of new regulations.

For most of us, political leaders and citizens both, it can be hard to know what’s at stake in these arguments about our local rivers and streams. Like biologist Rockie English, we may have to get our feet wet to find out.

Rockie is a Clemson University professor interested in the health of freshwater streams and he’s been concentrating on Lawson’s Fork, the creek that cuts Spartanburg in half. He and his graduate assistant drive to Spartanburg four times a year, put on their rubber boots, and wade out into the creek at five collection points. With nets in tow, kicking debris, they dredge up some of our community’s ugliest natural citizens, the larvae of various insects living in the stream.

The scientists will use the data they collect over three years to help determine the health of Lawson’s Fork. Their collection sites monitor the stream at different points along its meandering journey, from a narrow point near the headwaters to the wide confluence with the Pacolet River 30 miles downstream.

If they find lots of the larvae of stoneflies, caddisflies, water pennies, and riffle beetles, they conclude that the water is highly oxygenated and the quality is good. Sow bugs and alderflies signal that the quality is fair. An absence of aquatic life, of course, is not a good sign.

What Rockie is finding in his study is not surprising for an urban stream. Lawson’s Fork’s water is dirty, compromised by runoff chemicals from surrounding development. Fecal coliform, a bacteria that indicates the presence of human or animal waste, is above average in the stream, and our state environmental agency suggests that we not swim in it.

Rockie has taken me with him to the creek once or twice, calling when he gets to town or showing up at the coffee shop where we locals congregate in the mornings. There’s absolutely no scientific advantage to taking a poet out to sample a stream, but Rockie likes the company and the odd angles I sometimes bring to the straight lines of sample collecting.

The biologist laughs when I call the macroinvertebrates he finds “bugs.” I tell Rockie that his bugs have quite a poetic list of names and read them as if I’m Walt Whitman–Oh, stoneflies, water pennies, riffle beetles, caddisflies. Oh, mayflies, adderflies, damselflies, and dragonflies. Rockie agrees they are poetic but reminds me to get on with the task at hand, sampling the stream flowing over my feet.

Several weeks ago Rockie took students from nearby Chapman Elementary School to collect macroinvertebrates in Lawson’s Fork, which their school buses cross every morning. His visit is part of a program called PAIL (Plants, Animals Indigenous to Lawson’s Fork), designed to address components of the South Carolina science standards for students in grades three, five, and six. Through a cross-curricular study involving biology, writing, and art, students are learning how plants and animals in the Lawson’s Fork ecosystem interact and how they’re affected by the water quality of the creek.

“Now students in grades three, five, and six all know what a benthic macroinvertebrate* is!” Bea Bruce, librarian and coordinator of the program, says with pride. (*A bottom-dwelling creature that can be seen without a microscope and has no backbone.)

Helen Correll, a local artist, also works with the kids. They sketch the critters dredged from the flowing waters of their home stream and make flash cards with the drawings. Over the next few weeks teachers will coax poems out, a literature of the local populated with real creatures living not far away. In the classroom and in the creek, all these kids come to know Lawson’s Fork as a living stream.

After wading into Lawson’s Fork with Rockie, I’d like to propose a revolutionary idea: Every city council in the South should put on rubber boots, take up nets, and spend a morning identifying the macroinvertebrates that live in the streams flowing through their communities.

These creatures are every community’s silent constituents. They might not vote but, as Rockie says, they count in a big way when it comes to our health. Besides, wouldn’t messing around in a living stream be time much better spent than attending a ribbon-cutting at the new Wal-Mart? Isn’t it time that we all knew, like our biologists and our kids, that a creek is far more than a drainage ditch?

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