Miller County, Georgia - December 8, 2011 -
The droughts of 2000 and 2007 took a heavy toll on the mussel fauna of Spring Creek, Miller County, in southwest Georgia. The persistent drought and water use have impacted large sections of Spring Creek, in Colquitt, about 50 miles southwest of Albany, decimating native mussel populations, including two endangered species. A potential solution is to augment flows in a critical reach of Spring Creek with ground water pumped from nearby wells during extreme drought years.
“Spring Creek goes very, very low during drought,” said Doug Wilson, of the Golden Triangle Resource Conservation Development Council. “The wells are designed to augment the stream so we can sustain the habitat for the mussels. This is the first time that this has been tried in Georgia.”
The water augmentation pilot project for Spring Creek is the result of a collaborative partnership with the Golden Triangle Resource Conservation Development Council, the City of Colquitt, the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection and Wildlife Resources divisions, Spring Creek Watershed Partnership, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Spring Creek Partnership voted to release $85,000 of its grant money to be used in this project. Golden Triangle Resource Conservation Development Council will operate the wells. Other organizations contributed manpower, equipment, and expertise.
"Evaluating the use of groundwater to supplement streamflows in dry periods was recommended by the Lower Flint-Ochlockonee Regional Water Planning Council in their recently adopted plan for managing water resources in the Lower Flint River basin,” said Tim Cash, Assistant Branch Chief, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins, Watershed Protection Branch, Georgia Environmental Protection Division. “This project is an important first step in implementing the Council's recommendations as part of the statewide water planning process."
Two wells were drilled this year to the east of the pilot project site directly north of the Colquitt wastewater treatment ponds. The combined output of these wells is about two cubic feet per second. The Spring Creek is about 180 yards upstream of the City of Colquitt Wastewater Treatment Plant outfall. This area contains a number of native mussel species, including the federally endangered shinyrayed pocketbook and oval pigtoe, as well as native fish and turtles. Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, in cooperation with other project partners, developed a monitoring plan to assess the effectiveness of the project in maintaining habitat and enhancing survival of mussels.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen in my lifetime," said Hal Haddock, a farmer in Damascus, and a member of the Southwest Georgia Soil and Water District. “Springs are totally dry, the ground cracked open, and they’re just beginning to show a little flow right now. I’ve got one pond on my property that’s 500 acres. It doesn’t have a drop of water in it yet. It’s not spring-fed, it’s just rainfall and some runoff that comes into it, but it’s dry. I’ve never seen it like that.”
The high diversity of mussel fauna, as many as 14 species in one survey, makes Spring Creek a mussel hot spot for the Southeast. Three federally-listed mussel species, the shinyrayed pocketbook, oval pigtoe and Gulf mocassinshell used to live there, but only the pocketbook and pigtoe have been found in recent years. If the pattern of low flows continues, more mussel species will be eliminated from Spring Creek.
“In order for mussels to survive, they need clean flowing water, but during these extreme drought conditions, our concern is just to keep these animals wet in order for them to be able to survive,” said Sandy Abbott, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia. “The pumps are going to provide water for this portion of the stream to hopefully keep these mussels alive until rains come back.”
This operations plan will be changed as conditions shift that may indicate alternative actions are needed to achieve better conservation of Spring Creek mussels. A mussel monitoring plan will be established and carried out by biologists of the Wildlife Resources Division and the Service in order to assess the project’s effects on the existing mussel populations.
“The water in spring creek that the endangered mussels depend on to survive is dwindling, and the drought for the past decade has made matters worse,” said Abbott. “Spring Creek contains one of the best and last populations of these federally endangered mussels.”
Data from the new Spring Creek gauge in Miller County will be used to determine when and where the hose should be deployed to the creek site and when to turn the well on and off. These “trigger” points were made from observations and data collected by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and Service biologists. The trigger points are expected to change from lessons learned as the project progresses and sediment deposits around the gauge site.
“This well project is not a permanent solution,” said Abbott. “But we hope it will help keep this stretch of the creek wet to keep these mussels alive until a permanent solution can be found.”