Eric Reutebuch 1020 Lake u.jpg

Lake Watch Lake Martin volunteer monitors Dianna Porter and John Owen test the water at Timbergut Creek

As Lake magazine readers know, Lake Watch of Lake Martin has been shepherding over the waters of Lake Martin for many years – over the past three decades to be precise. Past threats to the lake have included a lakeside landfill and point sources of both industrial and municipal waste. These were met with strong advocacy for maintaining clean water in our lake by Lake Watch. Those efforts, along with the efforts of others, are the reason we still have the one-and-only Treasured Alabama Lake, the cleanest lake in the state. 

Our long-term monitoring continues at sites throughout the lake, as well as monitoring at new high-priority sites. Volunteer monitors currently test each month at 28 sites and have taken 3,138 data records from the lake, the Tallapoosa River above the lake and streams that empty into the lake. Lake Watch volunteer monitors have monitored swim areas, including D.A.R.E. Park beach, Wind Creek State Park beach and Pace’s Trail terminus, and have recently added a new swim site, the beach at Kowaliga Restaurant. Thankfully, all have been either completely free of E. coli bacteria (meaning no presence of fecal contamination – that’s a good thing!) or very low in E. coli, well below the state-mandated limit to protect human health. Kudos to our monitors for their commitment to preserving our Treasured Lake.

Ah, but just when you think you can rest on your laurels and go fishing, things change – new threats emerge. The most significant, in my opinion, is the explosion of poultry production right above the lake. I wrote about this in detail in the January 2020 edition of Lake magazine (Chickens in the Watershed). Since that time, Lake Watch has witnessed the construction of even more poultry houses in our watershed and has monitored sites on streams that contain significant poultry production that drain to the lake. 

Test sites include one on Crooked Creek downstream from Lineville, one on Emuckfaw Creek at Highway 49 Bridge and one on Timbergut Creek. The Tallapoosa River at Horseshoe Bend is also monitored. At the time this article was written, we’d captured one good rain event that showed significant bacterial contamination in all three streams. Timely sampling directly following a significant rain event is critical because that’s when pollutants, such as chicken litter, are flushed from the landscape into surface waters. 

Small streams rise quickly and then fall quickly. If they’re down by the time a monitor arrives (typically within hours of when the rain stops pouring down), the pollutants have already been flushed through – they’re downstream and on their way to the lake. The highest contamination was found in Emuckfaw Creek, 3,567 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water (about half a cup of water) – that’s not good. That level of contamination is 12 times higher than the state’s standard for a Fish and Wildlife-classified stream, such as Emuckfaw Creek, and is definitely not safe to swim in. 

If the water is high and muddy, it would be better to wait a day or two for it to go down and clear up to avoid swallowing nasty bacteria.

As of now, we only have this one date of high values, plus one date in February 2020 when the Tallapoosa River at Horseshoe Bend tested high for E. coli, 1,133 per 100 milliliters. I must add a big caveat: We don’t yet know the source of the E. coli in the creeks or the river. It could be poultry, cattle or wildlife – more testing is required to identify the source. 

And, to repeat myself from my last article, I love fried chicken. I grew up farming in northern Indiana – row crops, hogs and cattle, and I have a deep respect for farmers and the service they provide feeding the nation; nonetheless, Lake Watch remains greatly concerned with the proliferation of chicken houses above our one-and-only Treasured Lake. The questions that keep coming to my mind are: How many are too many? And can we determine this before our Treasured Lake is polluted and loses its luster? 

Lake Watch will continue to test the waters above Lake Martin. We hope to partner with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, poultry producers and other state agencies, so we can work collaboratively to understand what impacts, if any, are originating upstream and determine how to mitigate them, if needed. Stay tuned.

Lastly, as usual, we’d love your support in our efforts to preserve and protect Lake Martin today and for generations to come. Monitors and members come and go, so we’re always looking for a few good women and men. Come aboard at lakewatch.org

~ Eric Reutebuch is president of Lake Watch Lake Martin. Visit lakewatch.org for more information.