Volunteer monitors have Smith Lake covered at 2011 ‘State of the Lake Address’

by | Nov 14, 2011 | Uncategorized

Over 50 area residents gathered at the Dodge City Restaurant on the east side of Smith Lake on October 29th for the 15th Annual State of the Lake Address. Staff from Alabama Water Watch (AWW) have been invited to the lake by the Smith Lake Environmental Preservation Committee (SLEPC) since 1997 to discuss lake water quality and watershed stewardship activities in the Smith Lake Watershed. This year’s AWW crew consisted of Bill Deutsch, AWW Director, Eric Reutebuch and Mona Scruggs Dominguez. Their State of the Lake presentation included an update on AWW initiatives, evaluation of volunteer monitor water data from Smith Lake, an update on the ongoing Rock Creek Watershed Management Project, and a discussion of various ways that watershed residents can get involved in protecting Smith Lake.

Watershed residents listen to Bill Deutsch at Smith State of the Lake Address

Bill began with a synopsis of AWW activities and accomplishments since the program began in 1992. AWW stats included training and certifying 5,600 Alabamians as water quality monitors, and amassing 67,000 water quality data records in AWW’s online database from over 2,100 sites on Alabama’s streams, rivers, lakes and bays. Bill discussed recent developments, including the publishing of a new AWW brochure and new Water Chemistry Monitoring manual, as well as the launch of a new AWW website (at www.alabamawaterwatch.org).

Eric continued with an overview of volunteer water monitoring activities on the lake and its watershed. He stared by acknowledging the five citizen groups that actively monitor water quality on various segments of the lake, and on streams flowing into the lake. Active groups include SLEPC (15 active sites) primarily on the Ryan Creek arm of the lake, Winston County Smith Lake Advocacy (WCSLA, with 29 active sites) primarily on the Crooked, Rock, Brushy and Upper Sipsey Fork arms of the lake, Camp McDowell (3 active sites) on Clear Creek, Smith Lake Civic Association (SLCA) on the Lower Sipsey Fork arm of the lake, and the Cullman County Soil and Water Conservation District on Ryan, Crooked and Blevens creeks. The five monitoring groups have amassed an impressive database of over 2,400 water quality records, and actively monitor 65 sites on the lake and its tributaries, representing the best volunteer water monitoring coverage of any lake in the state!

65 active monitor sites of 5 groups in the Smith Lake Watershed

Eric then presented a series of long-term graphs and the Add Trendline tool to illustrate the value of consistent monthly monitoring to detect and document whether water quality is stable, getting better or getting worse. The first graph, 54 months of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) in the Upper Sipsey Fork arm of the lake, showed expected seasonal oscillations (highs in the winter, since DO is more soluble in cold water, and lows in the summer), with a stable trend of “healthy” DO levels at or above 6 parts per million (ppm), well above the 5 ppm minimum level mandated by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) for sustaining aquatic life (see graph below). Five ppm (blue dashed line on graph) is the required minimum for streams, rivers and lakes that are use-classified by ADEM as Fish and Wildlife, for information on use classifications by basin, see www.adem.alabama.gov/programs/water/wquseclass.cnt).

DO trend (green dashed line) of Upper Sipsey Fork arm of Smith Lake

The second graph, 47 months of DO in the Crooked Creek arm of the lake, showed low DO measured in 2007 followed by levels increasing to well above 5 ppm, an improving trend in water quality to “healthy” levels over the past three years.

The third graph, a very impressive 151-month trend in the Lower Sipsey Fork arm of the lake at Duncan Bridge showed another positive water quality trend in Secchi Disk Depth, indicating increasing water clarity at this site.

Eric showed two additional trend graphs of E. coli bacteria levels measured at stream monitoring sites on Crooked and Ryan creeks (76-month and 64-month tends respectively). In both cases, levels of harmful E. coli had declined to safe levels for the past couple of years.

Examination of cumulative water data of all sites in the Smith Lake Watershed collected over the past 12 months (a total of 373 records, see map below) indicated that Smith Lake had good water quality throughout the lake, with no low DOs, and only one “hit” of high E. coli on the entire lake, on Dismal Creek Embayment (two additional ‘hits’ occurred on a small tributary to Rock Creek in the upper watershed).

Whole-lake assessment based on AWW volunteer monitor water data

This whole-lake assessment was in line with the recent ranking of Smith as the “cleanest” of the state’s large reservoirs based on trophic state index (TSI) which is a scale of lake nutrient concentration, algal biomass and water clarity (Smith had the lowest TSI value, from ADEM’s 2010 Water Quality Report to Congress, available at www.adem.alabama.gov/programs/water/waterquality.cnt).

Mona followed with an update of the Rock Creek Watershed Management Project, which was funded by ADEM in March 2011. This 3-year ADEM-funded project is focused on reducing nonpoint source pollution flushing into Rock and Crooked creeks, with the goal of restoring the creeks to “healthy” water quality conditions. The two streams have been on ADEM’s polluted list because of excessive levels of pathogens, organic matter, low DO, and in the case of Crooked, excessive levels of ammonia. Recent project activities included participation in a GPS workshop for landowners, a Professional Logging Managers Field Day and the North Region Forestry Field Day.

SLEPC members Maggie Eaton and Jim Eason monitor bacteria at Crooked Creek

Mona then showed results of a series of Smith Lake Watershed bacteria “blitzes” conducted by volunteer monitors over the past two years. Sampling during this multi-group effort involved as many as 20 monitors testing at 40+ lake and stream sites on five blitz events (February, April, July and October of 2010, and March and October of 2011). Bacteriological monitoring supplies for the blitzes have been provided by the Global Water Watch-Gulf of Mexico Alliance Project which is primarily funded by the U.S. E.P.A. Gulf of Mexico Program (for more information, see www.globalwaterwatch.org/GOMA/GOMAhome.aspx).

Cumulative results showed that the majority of the E. coli “hits” occurred in the Rock Creek Watershed (19 of 23 occurrences, or 83%, of levels greater than 200 E. coli per 100 mL of water, see map below). Mona announced that results of the most current blitz (conducted the previous day) would be available at the upcoming Rock Creek Stakeholders Meeting scheduled for December 6th at Addison Community Center.

Cumulative occurrences of E. coli from 5 volunteer monitor sampling blitzes

Recently completed land cover/land use maps of the Rock Creek Watershed were presented, showing significant increases in forest lands at the expense of pasture/grasslands over the past 5 years. These shifts appear to coincide with shifts in economic conditions, particularly with increasing cost of inorganic fertilizers which translated to increasing value of poultry litter. These conditions have made it economical to haul litter out of the watershed, resulting in the conversion of pastures formerly used for litter application and cattle-grazing into forestlands.

Mona concluded by reporting an enthusiastic response to the Rock Creek Watershed Best Management Practices Sign-Up, saying that 15 agriculture producers had signed up for BMP project installations. These on-the-ground projects will be designed and installed to reduce the amount of pollution (fertilizers, chemicals, animal wasted, sediment) flushing off the landscape into the lake during rain events.

Bill concluded the program by enumerating several ways, in addition to water monitoring, that people can get involved in AWW and in stewardship of Smith Lake and its watershed. As illustrated on the new AWW brochure, he emphasized that putting water data into action is a major focus of AWW.  He said that the impressive and growing body of AWW volunteer monitor data can be used to:

  • educate the public on watershed issues,
  • to protect and restore waterbodies, and
  • to advocate for improved water policies throughout Alabama.

Bill closed by encouraging all to consider supporting AWW. This is particularly important in light of AWW’s recent loss of the ADEM 319 grant – the core funding for statewide training and support of volunteer water monitors. Eddie Hand, SLEPC President, came forward to present Bill with a generous donation, which the group vowed to contribute quarterly in support of AWW. Bill, along with the AWW staff extend our whole-hearted thanks to the generosity and personal commitment of the SLEPC membership to watershed stewardship!

SLEPC President, Eddie Hand presents AWW with a generous donation


Auburn University Water Resources Center
ALFA Agricultural Services and Research Building
961 S Donahue Drive
Auburn, AL 36840