Looking Past The Drought


December 5, 2016

The stonefly is an indicator of good water quality and is an important food source for fish. Many dry flies mimic the appearance of the stonefly. (Courtesy photos)

Save for the occasional weekend hike or fishing outing, many of us seldom think about the natural world. We are wrapped up in carpooling to baseball practice, helping with science projects, and preparing Sunday school lessons – paying little heed that we are part of, and dependent on, the natural world around us.

However, there's nothing like a drought to lay that dependence and interconnectedness bare. But once droughts pass, there is often little thought given to how we can improve our situation for the next one. Until, of course, the next one arrives.

A closer look at how we build our communities stands to improve not only drought resilience, but also improve the water quality of the streams that provide us with drinking water and swimming holes.

In a natural landscape, when rain falls, it slowly works its way through tree crowns, through shrub and grass layers, through the fallen, rotting leaves of the forest floor, finally entering the soil. Part of that water is taken up by plants, some evaporates, but some becomes part of the flow of groundwater, eventually emerging in a stream – a natural system designed to move water from sky to stream slowly, over time. This is the system that keeps the French Broad River flowing when there isn't a cloud in the sky.

When rain falls onto parking lots, roofs, and other impervious surfaces there are no leaves to catch the drops, and the water cannot soak into the ground – all of a sudden you have a lot of water gathering on a waterproof surface.

In poorly planned cases, that water, known as stormwater runoff, flows across impervious surfaces and down a storm drain where a culvert carries the water directly to the nearest stream. Unfortunately, steams aren't designed to take all that water at once, and stream banks and bottoms start eroding, meaning property washes away and a lot of dirt enters the stream where it smothers habitat for fish and all the small animals fish eat. The longer-term issue is that water is being carried away - not soaking into the soil and recharging the groundwater that keeps streams flowing.

In well-planned cases, that rainfall is caught and instead of being piped to a stream, it's moved to a place where it can soak into the ground over time – protecting streams and recharging groundwater that will eventually feed into a stream.

Allowing rainfall to soak into the ground – like it naturally does – makes for cleaner rivers that are less susceptible to the effects of drought.

What this means is anyone with a roof, driveway, or parking lot has the opportunity to improve stream health and boost groundwater supply. For homeowners, the most straightforward course of action is to install rain barrels to catch water coming off the roof and use if for lawn and garden watering. For larger developments, it can be a bit more challenging, but designing or retrofitting parking lots to capture rainfall and allow it to soak into the ground has already been done at schools, public parks, and other sites across the


Stream bank erosion is a huge culprit of sedimentation in streams. Restoration efforts on private and public land are playing successful roles in water quality in Transylvania County.


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