By Jeff Keeling
The fall morning is still cool in Founders Park as Jamie Kincheloe balances near the edge of Brush Creek. Just a few feet from where the stream reenters a subterranean path that takes it through downtown Johnson City, the East Tennessee State University student dips a container into the water as it splashes over a 1-foot drop in a mini cascade.
Back on terra firma a moment later, classmate Tori Anderson carefully eyes a dial on a plastic instrument that looks a bit like a cheap instant camera from the days of film. She lines up the dial until the colors of two inserted vials match and calls out a number: 8.5.
“That’s good – we like that,” says Dr. Ingrid Luffman, a professor in ETSU’s Department of Geosciences. Luffman is out with five of her students, overseeing them as they check dissolved oxygen levels at the upstream and downstream ends of the park. Luffman is a fixture around the region’s watersheds both for her years of work as an academic and trained hydrologist, and for her volunteer efforts with Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP).
“Around 9 is excellent, and once you get down around 4 milligrams per liter, then that’s poor,” Luffman says of the oxygen levels at the park’s downstream end. “What we’d expect to see is a little bit lower upstream, because these waterfalls and riffles are going to add oxygen to the water.”
Saturday, Luffman will be back in the park, this time to celebrate. In what organizers are billing the inaugural “Earth Dreams” festival, the importance of water will get top billing at a space that less than a decade ago was covered over by huge warehouses.
Mixed in, though, will be creation of a community mural, arts and crafts, outdoor theater, live music and demonstrations on native plants, composting and pollinator-friendly gardens in a free event that lasts from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nancy Fischman, one of the festival’s organizers, says the idea for the festival germinated in discussions about how new parks, walking and biking trails, public art and economic development in the central city exemplify the city’s, “future as a growing, active and sustainable community.
It’s about the water
A major impetus for all of those changes has been the push to address Johnson City’s flooding problems, which date back more than a century. In fact organizers are building Saturday’s event, which includes many educational opportunities and is geared to all ages, around the theme “The River Runs Through It.”
Founders Park exists thanks to funds generated from Johnson City’s stormwater management fee. Another downtown park in the King Creek basin, just south of the Johnson City Public Library, is a further outgrowth of flood mitigation efforts. And in concert with those efforts, which Luffman says have begun to alleviate some of downtown’s flooding problems, she and like-minded local folk have continued stepping up efforts at highlighting the importance of healthy watersheds.
Northeast Tennessee is home to many impaired streams that make the EPA’s “303d” list, Luffman says. E coli and sediment from habitat alteration are the primary culprits in this area, but the factors that create unhealthy streams are starting to improve. Volunteers, led by BWP, have undertaken numerous bank stabilization and other watershed restoration work in the area, particularly in the last decade.
“It takes a very long time to see improvement, maybe a decade or more,” says Luffman, adding that she believes the changes in downtown Johnson City point to continued attention being paid to water’s importance.
“(Brush Creek) is not something to be hidden; it’s not a sewer that’s flowing under downtown. It’s an urban resource, and with the new King Creek basin I believe it’s going to be the same thing. People will recognize that streams are an integral part of downtown.”
Back in the 1990s, Luffman says, the Tennessee Valley Authority had a “citizen scientist” program. Residents could use e coli testing kits, pH meters, temperature gauges and the like provided by TVA to test various spots in local watersheds.
Saturday, visitors to Founders Park will be able to learn about a new program modeled on TVA’s that BWP, ETSU and Johnson City’s public works department are starting. A staff gauge at the park’s upstream end (Sevier Street) will be near a sign that on one side relates the history of flooding problems in Johnson City, and on the other offers instructions for collecting data from the gauge and texting the readings to a number that feeds the readings automatically into a database.
“They’re time-stamped and water-level stamped,” Luffman says. “Volunteers are helping to get a better record for water flow in Brush Creek. If we can get a good characterization of how Brush Creek responds to rainfall – and we have a weather station outside our building at ETSU – we can take our rain gauge data and that stage data (from the park) and really get a better understanding of the hydrology of the stream.
“That provides a good understanding for what’s called the ‘time of concentration,’ or how long it takes for water that falls at the top of the watershed to make it to a certain point. It shows us how ‘flashy’ (prone to flash flooding) the area is.”
People can do much more than just join the ranks of citizen scientists, Luffman says – though that should be fun. Picking up pet waste is a major help, as is not littering. And landowners with streams on their property can help by leaving a “riparian buffer” of unmowed vegetation at least three to five feed out from the stream banks. Fertilizer should be spread only in the amounts recommended to prevent its runoff.
Learn more about Saturday’s event on Facebook at EarthDreamsJC.