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Water quality and sustainability in Appalachia

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Water flows through the center of Founders Park in Johnson City, Tennessee. (Photo by: Allison Winters)

Professionals are working to clean up Appalachia's waterways.

“E. coli is a pathogen and E. coli itself is not the problem. There is one strain of it, that is E. coli 0157, and that is the one that makes us sick,” said Ingrid Luffman, assistant professor in geosciences at East Tennessee State University. “We all have E. coli in our gut, it is essential, but 0157 is the one that can make us sick.”

Most varieties of the bacteria are harmless but if contact is made with some of the nastier strains, there can be a long list of mild to severe symptoms that can attack the human body.

“This strain of E. coli gives gastrointestinal upset which is vomiting and diarrhea,” said Luffman. “But worst case you can go into kidney failure and develop hemolytic uremic syndrome which can ultimately lead to death so it can be very serious.”

Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome is a condition that affects the blood and blood vessels. It results in the destruction of blood platelets (cells involved in clotting), a low red blood cell count (anemia) and kidney failure due to damage to the very small blood vessels of the kidneys.

Jana Archer, President of Boone Watershed Partnership, says that the group keeps an eye out for water sources that are at risk for these pollutants and encourages parents to avoid letting their children in the water. This includes Founders Park in downtown Johnson City which has had risks of E. coli.

The Boone watershed partnership is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works with local users, regional, state and federal entities, educators and others to identify and address water resource issues in the Boone Watershed, an area of about 686 square miles lying in Sullivan, Washington, Unicoi, and Carter Counties of Tennessee and Washington County of Virginia.

“At the Boone watershed partnership, our mission is to partner with local users, regional, state and federal entities, educators and others to identify and address water resource issues in the Boone Watershed and,” said Archer. “Our vision is to enhance the quality of life within Boone Watershed by improving water quality.”

The BWP has been actively partnering with large groups and has had some groundbreaking success stories in the region. Most recently, a creek that had been put on the impaired water list from the Environmental Protection Agency was taken off.

“The EPA has actually delisted Gap Creek for having high counts of E. coli. That is a big success story and it is a very fast success story,” said Archer. “We usually do not see those kinds of results for 10 to 15 years, but we see it in less than 3.”

According to professionals, the area's organizations also give sediment and litter a lot of attention due to the future issues they will present if not taken care of.

“First and foremost, the largest problem that we have is sediment. That is our number one pollutant. Not because the sediment is necessarily dirty, but it can smother the little fish and all those tiny little plankton they are eating on and plants,” said Archer. “The sediment is not really bad for humans; it is just bad for everyone living in the water.”

Statistics state that marine litter has killed over 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals in America last year.

“Well the biggest thing to explain to people is that stuff rolls downhill and we live in a very mountainous area with lots of water,” said Deborah Wilkinson, retired BWP board member and chemist. “So, anything that gets discarded or any pollutants will eventually end up in our water.”

Regarding COVID-19, Wilkinson is concerned if progress that has been made will be lost.

“With our current pandemic, we had made such good progress on plastic bags and now we are forced to use plastic bags so what is that going to do to us?” said Wilkinson. “Is that going to put us way behind again and we will have to start over? So, I think sustainability as a whole is a big issue in these days.”

The director of sustainability at ETSU, Kathleen Moore, stresses that everything in the environment has a ripple effect on each other. This includes anything from recycling to water quality and sustainability.

“There is only so much limited capacity that the earth can provide for us and there is only so many places that we can dump our junk,” said Moore. “If we aren’t sustainable or recycling or being aware then we are going to run out of earth’s resources. It is all tied together.”

According to a study published in the Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, water quality is directly related to the nations sustainability goals.

The relationship is clear: freshwater is essential to ensure a quality of life and a general well-being overall, according to Sustainability Times.

Professionals such as Wilkinson and Archer say Appalachia is in line with sustainability as the rest of the nation is. However, Luffman says they do occasionally run into funding issues regarding Tennessee’s policies.

Moore suggests that Appalachia has had a history of overcoming issues due to the lack of resources in the past and the region will stay strong regarding sustainability and quality of life in the future.

“We have a habit of learning how to make do in Appalachia,” said Moore. “We are very resourceful and resilient. That is one of the cultures here, they have had to make do and they haven’t a lot of resources to be able to throw things away and we have a tradition of that. We have a habit of really taking care of each other, too. I think cohesiveness and community are big also.”

Education is being implemented to the community in hope that the future generations will follow the lead and reduce their carbon footprint on the earth.

“Our mission is to educate and inspire the community to reduce their impact on the earth. Primarily that has to do with energy, water and waste. But it also is looking at other aspects of sustainability and looking at social inequality and economic inequality, activism and others,” said Moore. “So, with our mission we want to educate, inspire and to record and measure it to pass policies for the future.”

For more information on impaired waters in the Appalachian region, visit


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