The Forsyth County Department of Engineering and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service hosted an Agricultural Field Day on Nov. 20 to celebrate improved water quality at Four Mile Creek and to showcase the conservation practices that contributed to success.
Other collaborating partners included the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Keep Forsyth County Beautiful, Upper Chattahoochee River Soil and Water Conservation District and local landowners.
Around 40 stakeholders attended the event that began at Salem Baptist Church and included a farm tour to see the conservation practices in action.
For several years, the county’s water monitoring program identified Four Mile Creek as having a consistently higher bacterial content than any other stream in the county. Because of the high bacteria levels, Four Mile Creek had a limited ability to support aquatic organisms. The state designated this direct tributary to Lake Lanier as “non-supporting” for use for fishing.
Before any improvement practices could begin, the county needed to determine the source of continual contamination. Located in the northern part of the county, Four Mile Creek runs through agricultural as well as residential land. Bacteria from water samples collected from the creek were submitted for DNA testing to determine whether the bacteria originated from poultry houses, cattle or septic tanks at neighboring homes. The analysis found DNA from cattle and deer, and scientists monitoring the water observed cattle entering the creek to drink.
Once the contamination source was identified, the county and NRCS assembled other partners to begin implementing specific management practices that would help improve water quality in the area.
Using federal grant funds awarded to the county under the Clean Water Act, the partners developed an engineering solution that included installing 2.5 miles of fencing along the creek, creating four stream crossings so that cattle can still move between pastures, and built three watering ramps to provide access to water while limiting streambank erosion and water contamination. The solution design also encourages planting grasses, plants, and trees along streambanks to hold soil and filter out pollutants that may run into the water.
Justin Castleberry, one of the participating landowners, told the assembly that their family fenced out a lot of land for this project, but that it was “probably the least productive land on the farm.” The cattle had eroded the streambank from many trips down to drink from the stream.
The cattle are now completely fenced out of the creek, but they still need access to water. Through funding from another source, the conservation collaboration added another best management practice to the water quality improvement solution: a ram pump that moves water up from the creek to a watering trough using cost-free hydraulic power.
“We have water pumping into a tank 24 hours a day with no electric bill,” Castleberry said, “and I know the water leaving our land is cleaner than it was a year ago.”
Andrew Bearden with Jacobs Engineering Group said that the Sampling Quality Assurance Program that began in October shows that bacterial numbers in Four Mile Creek are already lower. Stream monitors are finding healthier populations of aquatic insects, including some sensitive species. Bearden said these are “tangible ways that we are seeing benefits” from the conservation efforts.
“There are a lot of benefits to conservation practices,” said Louise McPherson, USDA-NRCS soil conservationist. “Clean water helps the farmer’s profitability. Cattle gain weight faster drinking clean water. They have fewer diseases than when they drink muddy, high-bacteria water, and they suffer fewer injuries from scrambling down steep creek banks.”
Scientists on the project will continue monitoring water from Four Mile Creek for quality improvements. With continued success, the conservation partners hope this effort will serve as a model for other water quality improvement projects both locally and statewide.
Heather N. Kolich is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for the UGA Extension Forsyth County.