EHS students take active role to ensure clean water

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR Staff

   Ecology Club students at Elizabethton High School are doing their part to ensure their community has clean water. Students under the direction of teacher Gary Barrigar braved cold temperatures Wednesday to sample portions of Buffalo Creek behind Lions Field.
   Barrigar, who teaches ecology, chemistry and physics at EHS, said student groups like his Ecology Club are taking an active role in their communities by looking at water sources to see what's there.
   "If you have that, then you're going to have people who care about the water, and you're going to have clean water." Barrigar said his students are very dedicated.
   The Ecology Club has been conducting sampling in conjunction with the Buffalo Creek Watershed Alliance, which has been working to clean up the creek. "Some of these kids live out in this watershed, so it's a good community effort for them," Barrigar said.
   The students performed a number of tests to determine water quality, such as sampling for bacteria.
   "When it's warm enough to get out and get our hands in the creek, we even sample for macro-invertebrates, which are insects, snails, crayfish -- things like that," Barrigar said. "You can tell the health of the stream by the diversity of living things, and basically this is measuring diversity."
   Chemical tests were conducted Wednesday at Lions Field and above Happy Valley Middle School toward Milligan College, according to Barrigar.
   "We have identified in a few tests that Buffalo Creek is beyond what could be considered normal ranges in phosphates and nitrates. The result of those two being in the water is they cause unnatural amounts of algae, which covers the rocks and can be a smothering type of thing to a lot of the organisms in the water," he said.
   Sources are attributable to a number of problems, including animal and human wastes, runoff from fertilizers, failing septic tanks, and possibly even discharge pipes from some houses in the area. "Those aren't as common as they used to be, and they are illegal, but sometimes you find those," Barrigar said. "We were testing for ammonia because ammonia is a predecessor to the nitrates. When waste first comes out it would likely be ammonia and then be converted in the water to nitrates."
   Siltation, a result of runoff from construction, Barrigar said, is another problem for Buffalo Creek -- "Whether it be road building or house construction, or somebody clearing a garden too close to the creek. When it rains it just flushes that to the creek and then that settles and it just smothers everything."
   Barrigar and the Ecology Club have asked the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to add Buffalo Creek to its 303(d) list of impacted streams.
   "They haven't answered us on that yet, but from talking to some people in the local office, they think there's a possibility that it might be. When it is listed then they have to pay more attention to it and they're stricter as far as letting people dump into it," he said.
   The reason the Ecology Club has focused on the stream is because it is in the community and because Barrigar and the students feel like it has potential to be a pretty clean stream.
   "One that could be used for recreation purposes, fishing and so forth. But it's right on the edge of becoming totally unfit for anything like that."
   Barrigar said fecal coliform, or evidence of human and animal wastes, is present in Buffalo Creek but that its presence varies from site to site and fluctuates with the water level.
   The Ecology Club conducts routine samples at Lions Field because students are developing their own database which will indicate how the stream changes from month to month.
   Barrigar's students also are available to conduct water testing in other areas of Carter County. "If anybody wants us, and we think it's a valid reason to go, we will go and check it out," he said. If sampling results indicate a possible problem, the results are turned over to TDEC's Division of Water Pollution Control for follow-up.
   "We're not professionals, but at least we can get some idea about a problem, and then they can come out and get more verifiable results that would stand up in a court of law," Barrigar said.