Gate City Middle School students Amy Cole, Destiny Gillenwater and Tanner Davis dig into the TVA bank resotration program along Copper Creek in Scott County. Photo by David Grace.
GATE CITY — Southwest Virginia's Copper Creek, which stretches 62 miles through Russell and Scott counties, is one of the region's most biologically diverse waterways and an important tributary of the Clinch River.
The creek is home to as many as 70 different species of fish and another 30 mussel species, many of them endangered, and also serves as a shelter for aquatic life on the Clinch River during floods and other disruptive events.
To help protect those endangered species, and maintain the creek's natural beauty, the Tennessee Valley Authority, in partnership with local, regional and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, began working last year with landowners to add a protective barrier of native plant species along the 7.5 mile section of Lower Copper Creek in Scott County.
Those plants and shrubs make up a riparian barrier and contribute to stream stabilization designed to reduce erosion and sediment pollution that is harmful to animals living in the w a t e r.
On Friday, representatives from TVA, the Upper East Tennessee River Roundtable, Appalachian Sustainable Development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service met with local property owners at Lawson Memorial Church on Copper Creek Road north of Gate City to plant fruit trees and shrubs that will protect the tributary.
"Today we're working with landowners to try and establish a little bit of shoreline that has vegetation on it so it protects the water as the runoff is introduced to the system," TVA Vice President of Natural Resources Rebecca Tolene said. "Copper Creek, and the Clinch, is one of the most biologically diverse systems we have in the nation, so we want to protect the aquatic species and mussel species in it.
"What's exciting about this, is that the landowners here have been really supportive. They value this watershed, so we decided to come out with our partners to help do some work."
A group of seventh-grade life sciences students from Gate City Middle School were also present Friday to lend a helping hand and get an up close introduction to their studies on plant life.
"The students are out here learning about helping others and taking care of the area that we live in," GCMS seventh-grade science teacher Linda Strutner said. "We're talking about the Six Kingdoms (of Life) and we're moving into plants next week, so this really helps tie it all together.
"TVA is always wonderful to work with, and they really help us bring science to life a lot more than we can while we're in the room."
According to Katy Commender, buffer program coordinator with ASD and the UETRR, nearly 650 trees and shrubs ranging from persimmon to hazelnut trees to members of the willow family, will be planted on several properties along Lower Copper Creek this spring.
The plants are purchased with money provided by TVA and were selected to also benefit the landowners by providing them with fruit, nuts or wood that can be harvested to generate revenue.
"We need to come up with a way that is a win-win situation for the land owner," Commender said. "So that's where Appalachian Sustainable Development's Sustainable Forestry Program has been teaching folks how to grow these non-timber forest products, these native fruit and nut trees and shrubs, since 2010. ... It's pretty cool and innovative work and I'm pretty excited to be a part of it."
In addition to establishing the riparian barrier, Commender said the current phase of the project, which will run through at least September, includes stream restoration, bank stabilization and ford crossing removal. The work is paid for by funding from TVA and resources from the various partners involved in the project.
Landowners are only required to provide an in-kind match in the form of labor and land in order to participate, Commender said.
Tolene said the collaborative work falls under the TVA Natural Resource Plan's Aquatic Ecology Management Program and is part of utilities mission to protect the Tennessee River and its tributary system.
"This water ultimately flows into the Tennessee River system, and that's what we've been chartered to protect and steward," Tolene said. "It's one big system and we're trying to keep it as healthy as we can."
Any landowners in the area interested in participating in the program can contact Melanie Carter with U.S. Fish and Wildlife at (276) 623-1233 ext. 28.