Fish delay road repair

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Marshall County's Highway Department is waiting until July before starting work to protect a road between Ostella and Delina because of the spawning season for a fish on the endangered species list.

However, during interviews and an inspection of Cowser Road that stops at a dead end, there was no water in what's apparently an unnamed tributary that flows into Pee Dee Branch near where John Barnes Road intersects with Brown Shop Road just southeast of the Archer Community crossroads.

Highway Superintendent Jerry Williams, his right hand man, John Smiley, and Mandy Silva Cash of the US. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development office in Lewisburg explained the situation recently.

A state fish expert later explained that minnows are similar to other fish, including salmon in the great north west, that fight strong currents to get upstream to their ancestral ponds where fish eggs are laid and life stars again for the species.

When advised of the pending work, residents along Cowser Road have reacted by saying the unnamed tributary is little more than a drainage ditch, said Smiley, who did point out there's a seep of ground water flowing from a hillside facing Cowser Road.

Goats, cattle, chickens, other farm animals and wildlife are abundant in the idyllic rural home place for several families settled on lush land and hills accessed by the unlined, two-lane Cowser Road that's to be protected by a federally-funded stream bank stabilization project that's been on hold for months because of a minnow.

Williams provided a document for the stream bank stabilization project. He signed it on Feb. 9. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service paper notes nine places for stream bank stabilization to protect Talley Road and 11 places for the work to protect what the USDA NRCS calls Cowser Hollow Road.

Cash, the USDA official here in Lewisburg, says nearly a dozen roads have had such stabilization projects in Marshall County.

The USDA document, an amendment to a previous agreement with the county, indicates that the federal funding for the work was increased from $591,800 to $921,500.

When Smiley displayed the pending road project along sections of the dry stream bed, water from the seep did not flow enough to create a pond or any flow of significance down the stream bed.

"It'll be the first of July before we can go back to it," the county road superintendent said in his office on Old Columbia Pike in Lewisburg.

"It's to let the minnows stop breeding," Williams said.

Smiley said road work is to be conducted at some 600- to 700 feet along about 2,500 feet of Cowser Road.

Stream bank stabilization projects are conducted to prevent rushing water from eroding the banks of streams that would otherwise threaten the security of a road that generally parallels a meandering stream. Several such projects have been conducted by Williams' crewmen. One was documented here in a story published last year.

Broad flat rocks and gravel that make the stream bed of the unnamed tributary along Cowser Road were found to be dry when displayed by Smiley in late April before two lines of rain storms crossed Middle Tennessee. During the first week of May enough rain had fallen on Marshall County to allow a National Weather Service hydrologist to conclude that the continuing drought felt so badly in the summer of 2007 was over.

About a week after photos were taken of the dry tributary, there was plenty of water flowing down the unnamed tributary. The current would have prevented a strong man from standing on the stream bed.

Smiley had explained that in some places of that southern Marshall County area, flash flooding and high water has been a problem. Clearly, the current of the unnamed tributary could erode the stream bank.

But could fish spawn in it?

Not in that rushing current, according to Andy Abernathy, an ichthyologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

An example is the Slackwater Darter, Abernathy said to outline the reproductive process of many small fish which might otherwise be called minnows.

"When waters flood, they spawn outside the stream in these little conveyances and the pools that are connected," Abernathy said. "They migrate back into the streams when the [flood] waters subside.

"High water events are not always adverse to fish," he said. "They could breach a short dam.

"It's like salmon spawning," Abernathy explained. "There are fish ladders out west to let fish migrate upstream.

"Certain species are small," he continued. "Because of a drought, some fish move downstream, but if there are significant rainfalls, that allows them to re-colonize upstream."

Abernathy's science degree is from Tennessee Tech University at Cookeville.

Mandy Cash, a USDA rural development officer, says the delay in the Cowser Road stream bank stabilization project is because of the Redband Darter. Its scientific name is Etheostoma luteovinctum.

When we get ready to do a project with federal dollars," Cash said, "we make sure we're not going to affect endangered species."

She uses a special county map with areas marked in quadrangles that have been analyzed to list endangered species. The only vertebrate in the Cornersville quadrangle is the redband darter, she said.

But that was a "red flag," so she called the department's biologist and TDEC to know when work might proceed.

"It's not my call," Cash said. "It's theirs."

Endangered species issues arise "pretty often" she said, "especially in the Verona quadrangle in the Duck River area where there are a lot of endangered species.

One is called the Duck River Bladdr Pod, "a plant that likes to grow in crop fields," Cash said. "That and the darter are the most frequent issues."

She and Smiley acknowledged other species, including shell fish in the Duck River which have stopped major federal projects. South Central Tennessee residents may remember the Columbia Dam that was started and then removed by the Tennessee Valley Authority which had planned to build another big dam on the Duck River similar to the one at Normandy.