Unfortunately, the further the water flows from the Smokies, the less idyllic the picture becomes. Pollution from sources like sediment runoff and failing septic tanks threaten the health of the watershed. There has been a significant decrease in biodiversity the closer the water comes to Knox County.
Although there are 59 miles of waterway in the Little River watershed, the nonprofit group protecting it is too small to even have a single full-time employee. The group relies heavily on the work of Lydia Turpin, part-time program director who grew up in Fountain City and earned her degree in Environmental Studies and Sustainability from the University of Tennessee. She says the organization is sustained by donations and grants.
One of those grants, currently funded by TVA, fuels the Stream School. Twenty children typically take part to learn a little about Little River.
“We get kids to the Little River and teach them what a watershed is, how the land has a critical impact on the river itself,” Turpin said.
“We partner with Conservation Fisheries,” she continued. “They come out and bring a big net and then pick up stuff with the kids. If the weather is right and the conditions are clear, we get the kids in the water to snorkel and they get to see what it’s like under the surface of the river. It’s a whole new world.”
“The students also learn about the water,” she said. “They also learn the water cycle, such as how water cycles from the land to the rivers and streams. They need to understand that water exists in a constant cycle and that pollution in one area can affect another area later.”
While education and advocacy are central to LRWA’s mission of advocating for the Little River, the volunteers and board members put together an average of five stream clean-ups each year where they try to clear trash from the water and surrounding land.
This year LRWA will launch a pilot program aimed at monitoring the Little River’s health, according to Turpin.
One concern is the level of E. coli bacteria contamination in the water.
“You can get a whole lot of E. coli from dog waste and agriculture, especially if you don’t have proper enclosures and animals have free access to river,” she said. “Those are going to be the bigger issues around here, I believe. You’ve also got in Blount County the issue of leaky septic systems.”
No one has been keeping a close eye on the river’s microbial health, but LWRA officials plan to use testing kits at six different spots in the watershed to gather samples and have them analyzed at Microbac Laboratories Inc. in Maryville.
“Once we get the results we will list that on social media,” she said. “It’s a pilot program, so we’re not sure the directions we’ll end up going. We want to get the information, see how the river’s doing, and then make some decisions from there.”
While LRWA has learned how to do a lot with a little, the group would like to expand efforts in the future, said board president Gunnoe.
“We’re a small association,” Gunnoe said. “We are trying to balance our ambitions and goals with our capacity and resources. We have all kinds of ideas of what we’d like to do, but it’s hard hard to get things done. It would be nice to have a full-time person carrying out our mission. We’re always looking for support.”