Gap Creek aquatic health improves — stream “delisted” from EPA impaired list

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ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – A stretch of Gap Creek in Elizabethton is coming off of an impaired streams list after improvements in nitrogen, phosphate and e coli bacteria levels. The “delisting” from the Environmental Protection Agency’s 303d list comes after a years-long project led by the Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP).

“We started the project in 2014 to stabilize the stream and to take 23 mobile homes off of the failing septic systems and attach them to the Elizabethton sewer system,” Dennis Scheer, BWP’s treasurer, said Friday.

Dennis Scheer, Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP) treasurer, stands near a section of Gap Creek in Elizabethton that’s seen improved water quality thanks to a BWP-led project.

The designation comes after Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) monitoring showed sharply decreased e coli levels, several years after a grant helped BWP and partners do their work.

“Obviously we hoped that would happen, but it’s really not often that a stream improves, particularly that quickly in a number of years, to come off of the list,” Scheer said. BWP is a non-profit that partners with local users, regional, state and federal entities and educators to address water resources in the Boone Watershed (primarily the Holston and Watauga rivers and their tributaries).

“This was basically a partnership between (BWP), the City of Elizabethton and the property owner, Clark Homestead,” Scheer said.

Gap Creek, a tributary of the Watauga River, flows behind the park near West G Street and the Tweetsie Trail. The 23 homes there were on a failing septic system, which was likely contributing to elevated e coli levels.

“This is important because the even in East Tennessee there are a lot of impaired streams,” Scheer said.

A sewer tap (foreground) at a home in the neighborhood bordering Gap Creek that had septic tanks replaced in 2017.

In the early part of the decade, BWP initially used a Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) grant to fund materials needed for streambank stabilization to prevent erosion and runoff. The money initially flowed from EPA to TDA.

“There was a lot of erosion in the stream,” Scheer said. “Large rocks and boulders were put in as well as what they call tree wads — basically tree stumps that are put in to stabilize the banks, and then a lot of planting was done along the banks of the stream to prevent erosion.”

Using a follow-up TDA grant, BWP partnered with the park’s owner and the Elizabethton Water Department to replace failing septic systems close to the creek with Elizabethton sewer service. The park’s owner, Clark Homestead, LLC, provided some matching funds. The two grants totaled more than $85,000, while the sewer project cost a total of more than $115,000.

Just as they did with the streambank project, BWP volunteers provided project management and volunteer labor. TDEC provided water quality monitoring and best management practices assistance, while landowners installed best management practices and the City of Elizabethton provided technical assistance.

It wasn’t an easy process. The neighborhood wasn’t easily connected to the city’s existing sewer system. Scheer said BWP and the owner worked together with the city and funded a new main line on the park’s opposite side, tying it in to the sewer system.

Calum Trivette, who was fly fishing the Watauga River Friday, was pleased to learn of the Gap Creek improvements.

Scheer said the quick results — at least in stream quality terms — were a pleasant surprise. “We were thrilled. Normally we don’t see results that quickly, and we rarely see a stream that’s actually delisted because it usually takes years and years for the improvement to really show up.”

The result is a rare “win” for an urban stream. It was news to Calum Trivette, who was canoeing the Watauga near the mouth of Gap Creek Friday on a fly fishing expedition.

“It’s awesome news to hear that this creek here is back and in good shape, and levels are good and clean,” Trivette said. “Every little creek that does drain into these rivers has a big impact on the ecosystem and everything that grows within it. Hopefully we see some improvements further on downstream.”

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