KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Tennessee River system is the most used water source in the country, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The river and its tributary rivers provide water for more than 5 million people, which is why good water quality is important.
Another reason water quality is so important: About 96% of the water used from the Tennessee River is recycled back into it.
Friday is World Water Monitoring Day, so the TVA and Ijams Nature Center experts took the time to show exactly what they do to monitor water quality and clean the river.
For the last 25 years, the TVA has been monitoring the water quality of the Tennessee River system by collecting samples of the water, mud, insects, fish and more.
Dennis Baxter, TVA’s manager of the river and reservoir water monitoring compliance program, said they use electro-fishing to check fish, they look at the benthic macroinvertebrates (which are aquatic bugs that essentially live in the mud) and they look at the water quality itself to check water temperature, oxygen levels and pH levels.
“We take the components of all the aquatic animals, and we take the water chemistry, and we put it in this equation and we get a reservoir ecological health score,” Baxter said.
So, why check everything and not just the water?
Baxter said it’s because every aspect of the water, from the mud to the fish, shows the quality of the water as a whole and what pollutants might be contributing to the quality.
In order to check fish, John Justice, a fisheries biologist with TVA, said they use electro-fishing.
“These guys (fish) are the indicators of what’s going on with the water quality. Some of these fish are sensitive to temperature, some are sensitive to pH, some are sensitive to oxygen requirements,” Justice said.
Justice and other TVA crews check closer to the banks of the river. The boat they use produces kind of like an electric bubble around the boat and stuns the fish just enough so they float up to the surface, but doesn’t kill them.
He said the Tennessee River has more than 300 native species of fish, and is some are more prevalent in the water than others, then it could mean poor water quality, such as the ‘sucker’ fish species.
“With our long-term monitoring program, if we see these species of fish declining over time then we can draw a few conclusions from that. One, that there’s potentially a loss of spawning habitat,” Justice said.
How sedimentation negatively affects river water
Justice said sucker fish need gravel to spawn on and there is one pollutant that can largely impact the species: Sedimentation.
The TVA experts said sedimentation is the number-one river pollutant.
“If we have sedimentation coming in, then we’re going to start losing our sight feeders, we’re going to have hybridization amongst species because fish key in on colors and that’s how they select their spawning mates,” Justice said.
Another way TVA tracks sedimentation is by checking the mud on the bottom of the river.
They use a special boat to grab a clump of the mud and sift through it in order to look for the aquatic bugs.
“You know, the water turns brown when it rains. Well, that’s sedimentation. So sedimentation affects a lot of the aquatic communities, especially the bottom dwelling organisms that need those little interstitial spaces to live. When it’s sedimentation, when it gets filled in, they don’t have a place to live,” Baxter said.
The aquatic bugs and fish are the perfect example of how water impacts everything.
The aquatic bugs are at the bottom of the food chain, and if they die without reproducing, then the entire river food chain would be impacted.
If the food chain is impacted, Justice said then commercial fishing and the economic boosts from recreational fishing would be impacted.
Baxter said water quality can also impact other industries because they have to use cooling water for their processing.
“So if the water is clean when it comes in, it’s less the industry has to spend to clean the water before it goes out and therefore, like if they’re making iPhones, your iPhones will be cheaper,” Baxter said.
While sedimentation is the largest water pollutant, garbage is probably the most obvious.
Jerry Weaver, River Captain for Ijams Nature Center, spends his days patrolling 11 miles of the Tennessee River and cleaning out the garbage.
“After you’ve picked up twelve bags of trash one morning and you’ll feel accomplished, it will rain and the next day those another 12 bags will replace it. It’s astonishing,” Weaver said.
How Ijams helps to educate, clean
Ijams Nature Center partners with the TVA and several other organizations, such as the Knox Education Foundation, to educate people about the importance of water quality and help clean up the river.
Jennie McGuigan, education director at Ijams, said the nature center has several programs about clean water.
“That river is really a unifying part of the health of our community, and but if you don’t get to see it, it’s hard to know what to do, when to do,” McGuigan said.
Ijams Nature Center partnered with the Dogwood Outdoor Coalition over the last several years to help create an arboretum around a water shed.
Kara Strouse, Dogwood Elementary Community Site Coordinator, said it took four years of hard work and some community grants to create the now internationally certified arboretum on the elementary school’s property.
“They have created what was once an impenetrable, forgotten about space that had been a site for illegal dumping, and now it’s a bustling mountain bike trail and hiking trail,” Strouse said.
She said there are six outdoor classrooms around the trail and it’s open to the community when school isn’t in session.
Strouse said the arboretum is a great educational lesson for the children. They can see exactly how their backyard is impacted by dirty water.
Ijams River Rescue
Ijams, along with TVA and Home Federal Bank, hosts the Ijams River Rescue event every year to get the community out and cleaning the river.
In 2019, volunteers of the 30th annual Ijams River Rescue collected nearly 37 tons of trash, debris and tires from 33 sites in and along East Tennessee’s waterways.
This year, the event will be held on Nov. 7.
What you can do in the meantime
Ijams takes organizations out to the water almost weekly to help clean up the waterways, if you can’t make that event.
Baxter said there are plenty of other ways everyone can help keep the water clean.
The most obvious is — don’t litter.
“Make sure you dispose of your oils, like if you change your own oil in your lawn mower or you vehicles, make sure you got to a convenience center to put your oil in. Don’t dump it in the drain. Don’t think that the pesticides you use on your lawn won’t get into the water because it will. Especially if it rains,” Baxter said.
We can also help prevent sedimentation too.
“Making sure our yards are stable. If you have any bare spots, make sure you grow some grass on it. Don’t cut the trees all the way down to the water. You know, try to stabilize banks,” Baxter said.
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