Editor’s Note: All data and information used within this story stems from TDEC information provided in June 2022. News Channel 11 has reached out to TDEC to see if any information requires updating.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Fishing and swimming are not recommended along 20 miles of Beaver Creek in Sullivan County — one of the longest stretches statewide in a state agency’s health recommendations based on bacteria levels and contaminants in fish.

Smaller stretches of Sinking Creek in Washington and Carter counties and Washington County’s Cash Hollow Creek also made the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) list. TDEC’s most recent annually updated list of “Bacteriological and Fishing Advisories” includes a total of 124 miles in 18 different streams statewide.

A separate listing of fish tissue contaminations that warns against overconsumption of fish, or certain species, includes warnings for almost all the area’s large reservoirs and rivers. That list shows the most significant local issue exists along the six miles of the North Fork Holston River that’s inside Tennessee, where any consumption of fish is advised against due to mercury levels found in fish there.

“When streams or lakes are found to have significantly elevated bacteria levels or when fish tissue contaminant levels exceed risk-based criteria, it is the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Conservation to post warning signs so that the public will be aware of the threat to public health.”

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

According to TDEC, a body of water with an advisory in place is not meeting its designated use, since anglers cannot safely eat the fish they catch. If that is the case, TDEC warns those waters are also not ideal for activities like swimming.

Bacteriological Contaminations

TDEC reports bacteriological contamination occurs when pathogens or disease-causing organisms are present in the water and impact the community’s ability to “safely swim, wade, and fish in streams and reservoirs.” Some potential causes of these advisories could be failing urban runoff of failing systems related to animal waste, septic tanks or water collection.

Urban runoff is water containing pesticides, waste, chemicals or other pollutants from a city that is flushed out during rain via storm drains.

Throughout the state, roughly 124 miles of river had posted bacterial contamination as of June 2022.

In total, TDEC has bacteriological contamination advisories in place at 18 East Tennessee streams. Three of those are located in Northeast Tennessee, all of which are in place due to urban runoff.

In Sullivan County, a 20-mile portion of Beaver Creek from Boone Lake to the Virginia state line is under advisory due to urban runoff from Bristol and “nonpoint sources in Virginia.”

As of June 2022, Washington County posted two bacterial contamination advisories. A portion of Cash Hollow Creek from Knob Creek to Big Hollow was under an advisory. That area spans about 1.4 miles according to TDEC and is a result of runoff from Johnson City.

A portion of Sinking Creek in Washington County was also under a bacterial contamination advisory in 2022. The area runs from the “point of subsidence to Catbird Creek,” a distance of about 2.8 miles. That stretch of the creek includes the majority as it runs alongside King Springs Road in Johnson City and through Jacob’s Nature Park. Sinking Creek’s advisory came as a result of both urban runoff and the presence of livestock in the area.

Fish Tissue Contaminations

In addition to the bacteriological contaminations, TDEC also posts warnings for fish tissue contamination. While TDEC encourages the consumption of Tennessee’s freshwater fish, posted advisories should be followed when reeling in and cooking fish in certain areas.

In Northeast Tennessee, several rivers, lakes and reservoirs have precautionary advisories in place for some species of fish. A precautionary advisory means children, expectant mothers and nursing mothers should not eat the fish, and everyone else should limit their intake of the fish to one meal each month.

One river has a stricter advisory in place: the North Fork Holston River. TDEC warns everyone from the start of the fork to the Virginia state line (a little over six miles) to not eat the fish due to mercury.

The following are fish tissue contaminations posted in Northeast Tennessee in 2022. Each one carries a precautionary advisory, with the exception of the North Fork Holston River:

  • Boone Reservoir – Entirety of reservoir for carp and catfish due to PCBs and chlordane
  • Cherokee Reservoir – Entirety of reservoir for black bass and catfish due to mercury
  • Holston River – From John Sevier retention weir to “confluence of the North and South Forks of the Holston near Kingsport” for all fish due to mercury
  • Nolichucky River – Entire length in Tennessee for black bass and some areas for channel catfish due to mercury
  • North Fork Holston River – From head to Virginia state line for all fish due to mercury
  • South Holston Reservoir – Portion in Tennessee for largemouth bass due to mercury
  • Watauga Reservoir – Entirety of reservoir for largemouth bass and channel catfish due to mercury

In 2022, about 565 miles of river and more than 240,000 acres of reservoirs were advised against fishing in due to tissue contamination. Those advisories, TDEC reports, are typically due to containments like mercury and organic substances binding with the sediment in the water and becoming a part of the environment for a sustained length of time.

TDEC stated in its advisory list that eating an occasional fish from an area with an advisory is not likely to measurably increase a cancer risk, but eating contaminated fish for years can be dangerous. Children and pregnant women are also especially warned from eating fish from a contaminated area.

The department advises that anglers hoping to eat fish from a contaminated waterway throw back the larger and fattier fish, wash their catches prior to cleaning them, either broil or grill fish rather than frying them and throw away any fat from fish. Additionally, TDEC warns to never eat any fish from a possible mercury-contaminated area.