Little Pigeon River advisory lifted

Apr. 24, 2014 @ 11:00 PM

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has announced the lifting of a water contact advisory for part of the Little Pigeon River in Sevierville, as well as some connected tributaries in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

TDEC representative Shannon Ashford said via email on Wednesday that the portion of the Little Pigeon River where the advisory is being lifted is along Highway 66.

“The West Prong Little Pigeon merges with the Little Pigeon River just downstream of downtown Sevierville at the end of Kilby Street, or more specifically about a quarter mile downstream of the Highway 411/441 bridge over the West Prong,” Ashford said.

“The other streams to be de-posted are King Branch and Gnatty Branch along the Spur between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Roaring Fork, Baskins Creek and Holy Branch are to be de-posted in Gatlinburg.”

According to a release from TDEC, the remaining water contact advisories on the West Prong Little Pigeon River, plus Dudley Creek and Beech Creek, will remain in place while additional pathogen testing is performed during the summer of 2014.

“I am pleased to announce that due to the efforts of many people in Sevier County, including state, county, municipal governments and the National Park Service, many of the long-standing water quality issues that led to the original advisory have been resolved,” TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau said in the release.

“As a result, water quality is greatly improved and the department no longer considers the contact warnings to be necessary. Progress continues on streams that need additional improvement.”

The Tennessee Water Quality Control Act requires that TDEC post signs and inform the public when bacteria in water or contaminants in sediment or fish tissue cause public health to be unduly at risk from exposure.

In 1993, elevated fecal coliform levels were found in the Little Pigeon River downstream of Sevierville, the West Prong Little Pigeon downstream of Gatlinburg and within Pigeon Forge, and in multiple tributaries.

Depending on the location, the sources of bacteria were thought to be overflows from municipal sewage treatment facilities and collection systems; the direct connection of household wastewater to streams; and failing, improperly sited and concentrated septic tanks.

Since then, the three cities, the county and the National Park Service have worked together to identify and resolve problem areas.

The City of Sevierville upgraded its sewage treatment plant and moved the outfall from the Little Pigeon River to the French Broad River, a much larger body of water. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg located and eliminated improper sewer connections and leaks from pipes.

State and county officials walked streams to look for “straight pipes” of household wastes into streams, and to spot septic tanks in need of rehabilitation.

With assistance from the City of Gatlinburg, the Park Service worked with the Dudley Creek Stable concessionaire to install a new wash rack for the horses and connect it to the Gatlinburg sewer system. They also moved a one-mile section of riding trail away from Duds Branch.

Sevierville spokesperson Bob Stahlke emphasized that cleaning up the river and tributaries is a team effort.

“The cities and county have made policy improvements regarding illegal dumps, disposal of solid waste, dumping materials into storm drains and street department maintenance of drainage systems,” Stahlke said.

“Additionally, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevier County all adopted storm water ordinances in 2005, which were updated in 2011.

“Improving the water quality of our rivers and streams will allow increased recreational use for both our residents and visitors.”

Caitlin Worth of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park said the park is “pleased to stand with the city, state and county” to restore water sources to quality levels for recreation, and that the park remains committed to mitigate existing sources of trouble with area water ways.

Ashford said that TDEC has sufficient data to indicate that bacteriological levels in the water now meet quality standards for body contact recreation, and that the signs are no longer warranted. Still, she said, some measures should always be followed, regardless of advisory status.

“Anyone with open wounds, scrapes or scratches should not swim in any surface waters,” she said. “Swallowing any surface waters should be avoided as well. Waters that are turbid (muddy) from precipitation events should be avoided by swimmers since runoff can carry some pollutants. Fisherman should follow similar protocols.”

David Sexton of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said he does not believe lifting the advisory will have a noticeable impact on area wildlife or fishing.

“I know that right now, people around here are still fishing in those places anyway,” Sexton said. “I would not not know anywhere that people haven’t been fishing for years. People trout fish on the Spur daily; the signs there haven’t affected anything as far as fishing goes.”

Greg Ward, owner of Rocky Top Outfitters in Pigeon Forge, which specializes in hunting and fishing, said the lifting of the water contact advisory is something he has wanted for a long time, and he hopes that other local water sources under advisory will soon follow.

”It’s been a battle for decades, and Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, they need to be commended for the work they’ve done,” Ward said. “Think of how many tourists would be going to TWRA to get a fishing license if they didn’t see those signs up saying that the water may be contaminated. It’s a win-win-win for everyone.”

An event to celebrate the lifting of the water contact advisories will be held Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at the Sevier County Fairgrounds in Sevierville.

Officials from TDEC, Sevier County, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and the National Park Service will attend the event.

jold@themountainpress.com