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Cleanup efforts help keep lake among nation's most pristine

By Lacy Hilliard
For the third year in a row, Johnson County, Carter County, and other neighboring residents joined forces in an effort to maintain the beauty of Watauga Lake. Though Watauga Lake is ranked as one of the most pristine lakes in the United States, the effects of litter can be seen in the many coves that dot its shoreline.
The annual Watauga Lake Cleanup was founded in 2009 by Mary Salter. Salter, like many other Johnson County residents, recognizes the value of this local treasure and has worked tirelessly to help preserve its natural beauty and biological stability. Mary Salter in cooperation with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), are working each year to help promote this positive community effort. In 2011, over 260 volunteers registered to help with the cleanup. Through the work of the volunteers, several tons of trash were removed from the lake.
This year, TWRA officer, Dennis Lindbom, employed the help of a large TWRA funded pontoon boat and several pairs of hands including officers, Jim Habera, Jerry Strom, and Bobby Brown. The group returned to the same location Lindbom had cleaned up at the 2011 event. As he arrived at the cove, located in the Neva area of Johnson County, the amount of debris present was astounding. Though several plastic bottles, pieces of Styrofoam, and old cans were clearly visible immediately upon arrival, as the team sifted through the thick brush and organic debris surrounding the area, a new world of waste was revealed. Everything from old beach balls, planters, combs, lighters, snuff tins, milk jugs, cigarette butts, and even an old bowling shoe could be found hiding just below the surface. All in all, the team removed about 35 bags of trash from this location. Though the amount seems intimidating, Lindbom said it is a vast improvement from last year’s 60 bags that were removed from the same location. Lindbom said that the decrease in litter is a sign that the Watauga Lake Cleanup is encouraging a definite improvement in the state of the lake.
Not surprisingly, the majority of pollutants removed during the Watauga Lake Cleanup were plastics. The TWRA officers feel that plastics as well as Styrofoam pose the largest threat to the health of the lake’s ecosystem. Because plastic never fully biodegrades, complete removal is necessary to avoid a catastrophic buildup of this wasteful material. As pieces of plastic and Styrofoam break down,they pose a threat to the local wildlife by mirroring the animals’ food. Tiny pieces of Styrofoam, for instance, can easily become entangled in surface plant matter that provides a food source to ducks and fish. The consumption of this foreign substance can lead to problems in digestion and even death in small animals. Litter like six-pack can rings can easily become wrapped around fish, turtles, and birds, preventing the animal from swimming and feeding.
The TWRA attributes most of the litter to the carelessness of boaters and other recreational lake users; however inflowing rivers, run-off from surrounding roadways, and illegal dumping also play a role. The experts say it’s important for all those that utilize the lake to employ a “carry in, carry out” policy to avoid further pollutants from entering the water and the TWRA hopes to help raise awareness about the dangers of littering through the Clean Streams Grant, which has provided funds to the Watauga Lake cleanup and other similar programs throughout Tennessee.
Watauga Lake is a majestic and unique resource in Johnson County. Thanks to the efforts of people like Mary Salter, the TWRA, and all those that participated in the cleanup, the lake continues to glisten like a gem tucked deep in the mountains. It is the firm belief of wildlife warriors like Dennis Lindbom that if people knew better, they would do better. The continued efforts of the cleanup and the TWRA will help keep Watauga Lake pristine, but it’s the added awareness and helping hands of concerned residents that will protect it for generations to come.