Nov. 26, 2012. People might assume that water in the mountains is pristine, but the local headwaters are increasingly at risk from urbanization, according to Appalachian State University’s Dr. Chuanhui Gu. He is determining to what extent local streams are harmed by pollutants and other change.
“The water resources issue really has become more intense as population grows and we build more roads, parking lots and concrete surfaces that interfere with the water cycle. How this affects water quantity and quality in Southern Appalachia hasn’t been answered,” said Gu.
An assistant professor in the Department of Geology, Gu recently received the 2012 Wachovia Award for Environmental Research from Appalachian’s Cratis D. Williams Graduate School for his research. The award honors faculty or graduate students for studies related to environmental concerns.
Now in his fourth year at Appalachian, Gu is part of an interdisciplinary team maintaining long-term monitoring stations that measure water quality every 15 minutes in seven local streams: Boone Creek, Winkler Creek, Flannery Fork, Goshen Creek, and the East Fork, South Fork and Middle Fork of the New River.
“We want to see how stream flow varies across the different landscapes and also how the stream flow varies over time,” he said. “We feel we have been addressing something that has been puzzling the scientific community for a while – how these mountainous, headwater streams work given the scenario of urbanization.”
An ‘impaired’ waterway
The N.C. Division of Water Quality tests local waterways every two years, and in 2010 and 2012 it listed the East Fork of the New River near the Boone Greenway as “impaired” based on its biological integrity. Gu said he finds this interesting since Boone does not have a major industry, as is typical with other areas of the U.S. with polluted waterways.
“I wanted to see what causes this ‘impaired’ stream, so I launched this research project to see how urbanization affects stream flow and water quality, which is critical for aquatic ecosystems,” he said. If water sources are harmed, either by contaminants or decreased water levels and stream flow, fish and other species will be put in danger, he explained.
“There is not much scientific research on headwaters, especially in such rugged landscapes. This data fills the gap,” Gu said.
In the two years he has been collecting data on the seven creeks, Gu said he has observed dynamic patterns such as daily and seasonal variations in water temperature and occasional, unexplained spikes of chemical contaminants. He also has observed increased flash flooding in the urbanized areas of Boone, which he attributes to increased urban development.
With more pavement and concrete, known as impervious surfaces, rainwater cannot soak into the ground and replenish the ground water that feeds the streams gradually, he explained. Instead, the rainwater has nowhere to go but directly into the storm sewer or drainage pipe. As this runoff enters streams, the sudden addition of water causes streams to overflow their banks and generates floods. In addition, this storm runoff carries pollutants and contaminates streams.
A clearer picture
Monitoring these headwater creeks so they can be better protected is important, Gu said, because they feed larger rivers and lakes. In the Southern Appalachians, 75-80 percent of the stream networks consist of headwater streams. “They serve as the ‘water tower’ to the extensive downstream communities in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain,” he said. “We feel we can do something for our local area that larger regulatory agencies cannot because they don’t test water quality and quantity of small, local streams often or they don’t test them adequately.”
His data, for example, has shown that Boone Creek running through Appalachian’s campus – which is not listed as “impaired” by the N.C. Division of Water Quality – has levels of chloride, nitrate and sulfate that are three to eight times higher than in the East Fork. “The concentrations of those pollutants clearly indicate the more degraded water quality of Boone Creek as affected by urban development. In addition, water temperature is also higher in Boone Creek than East Fork, which threatens many aquatic lives such as trout, a fish species extremely sensitive to thermal pollution,” Gu said.
The work of Appalachian’s interdisciplinary team – which consists of faculty members in chemistry, geology and biology and the social sciences – can help policymakers make scientifically sound decisions to protect water resources, Gu said. It can also encourage local citizens to act to protect water resources and address how to handle interest conflict between government agencies and private landowners.
The cash award associated with the Wachovia Environmental Award will allow Gu to enhance the team’s work by purchasing rain water collectors and a weather station to determine the chemical composition of rain and how that affects the chemical composition of the streams.
Gu has three undergraduate students who assist with his research. “They are really excited because they get a chance to work on a project addressing their local, scientific questions,” Gu said.
A native of China, Gu worked as a researcher in Berkeley Water Center at University of California, Berkeley before coming to Appalachian.