Sometimes, if you work hard enough and look closely enough, you wind up holding success right in the palm of your hand.
One single mussel on your plate isn’t worth much, but a live southern rainbow mussel in the waters of Raccoon Creek—a 21-mile-long tributary of the Etowah River—might just be invaluable.
Along with the Conasauga and Coosawatte rivers, the Etowah is a major contributor to the Upper Coosa Watershed, which spans twenty Georgia counties and stretches into parts of Alabama and Tennessee. These bodies of water support a remarkable diversity of plants and animals and are the lifeblood of the region’s agriculture and industry. They also contribute more than 10 percent of the drinking water to metro Atlanta and surrounding communities.
Raccoon Creek, like the Etowah itself, was once a vibrant and balanced aquatic ecosystem. But decades of gold mining contaminated the region’s waters while rural development and increased agriculture altered the natural hydrology of the creek. Together, those factors greatly reduced populations of darters—small minnow-like fish that are the foundation of the aquatic food chain.
While the loss of a keystone species adversely affects the entire system, the decrease in darters was particularly harmful for southern rainbow mussels (villosa vibex), which, in a roundabout way, rely on the fish to propagate.
“Mussels need specific fish to breed,” explains Katie Owens, Upper Coosa Basin project director for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. “Female mussels release glochidia—larval mussels—which attach to a host fish. They grow and live off the fish and then drop off into the stream channel when they reach the juvenile stage. Southern rainbow mussels use sunfish as hosts and sunfish feed on darters. In a way, mussels and darters together are like the canary in the coal mine for rivers and creeks. ”
Owens has been looking in vain for mussels in the Etowah River and its tributaries since 2008, and she estimates it’s been at least three decades since the last verified sighting of a live mussel in Raccoon Creek. “They were gone,” she says. “Even though gold mining ceased more than a century ago and the contaminants are gone, other changes to water conditions were so drastic that most people completely wrote off finding them.”
To Owens, the lack of mussels was symptomatic of larger problems that could only be addressed through targeted restoration. Luckily, Raccoon Creek is part of a larger watershed system that has received tremendous conservation attention in the past few years.
“The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Paulding and Bartow counties have played a big role in land protection,” says Owens. “More than 20 percent of the watershed—almost 35,000 acres –is already under permanent protection.”
If You Restore It, They Will Come
Owens estimates it took about two months to restore a mile of Raccoon Creek—60 days of pushing dirt, replanting trees, establishing shrub buffers and stabilizing stream banks in order to stop the flow of sediment into the creek and recreate the types of fast-moving riffles darters need to survive.
But the real work began nearly a decade ago, long before the first shovels hit the dirt.
“The land along the creek is privately owned by farmers,” Owens says, “so about eight years ago I started by knocking on the door of one landowner—one farmer. We built a relationship of trust and I worked my way throughout the community.”
After finding farmers in the watershed willing to allow restoration on their property, Owens set out to design the most effective possible projects within her budget, which came from a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and donations from individuals and Georgia Power.
Owens spearheaded a Rapid Watershed Assessment to inform those designs and to ensure that future projects would leverage existing conservation in the watershed, for example by improving fish passage further downstream. And since Raccoon Creek contains two threatened species, the Etowah and Cherokee darters, Owens had to submit her designs through a drawn-out federal approval process.
With the planning finally completed, Owens and the restoration contractors could finally get down to the dirty work, which wrapped earlier this year. And once that was done, it was time to go looking for mussels.
A Huge Payoff in a Tiny Package
Mussels, even under the best conditions, can be difficult to find. They’re small and millions of years of evolutionary design have made them nearly indistinguishable from the rocks with which they share the stream bed. The solution for conservationists on sampling expeditions is decidedly low-tech. “You snorkel for them,” explains Owens.
On just such a trip in Raccoon Creek in fall 2013, a team that included Owens, students from nearby Kennesaw State University, a biologist from the Paulding County water department and DNR interns, found the first confirmed mussel in decades. “She was female and gravid—open and about to release a larval glochidium—which is even more exciting.”
For the understated Owens the discovery was a sign of hope for an entire species and a bit of hard-earned validation for years of work.
It was also proof that in conservation, no success is achieved in a vacuum. For Owens and countless other conservationists around the world, every decision made, every minute in the field and every dollar spent are working towards a bigger picture that may take years—even decades—to come into focus.
But sometimes, if you work hard enough and look closely enough, you wind up holding success right in the palm of your hand.