A creek in coastal Mississippi was once listed as an impaired waterway, void of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. But with the help of environmental agencies and conservation-minded farmers, the creek was removed from the “bad” list.
Orphan Creek in Hancock County, Mississippi was listed in 1998 as a Clean Water Act impaired waterway. The creek and its tributaries, including Dead Tiger Creek, form a watershed of about 25,000 acres and push their waters to the Jourdan River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality monitors water quality on Orphan Creek. Using data retrieved from 2001 and 2003 in the Mississippi Index of Stream Quality, or MISQ, Orphan Creek scored 53.2 and 51.5, respectively and failed to support its designated aquatic life use.
Scores have to be higher than 61 on the MISQ scale to be considered adequate to support aquatic life. While the creek was already listed under the Clean Water Act, this poor rating led to the creek’s selection as a priority watershed for restoration.
The poor water quality was attributed to agricultural nutrients and soil erosion.
MDEQ partnered with the Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to make conservation improvements to area farms to keep cattle out of waterways and erosion control.
The conservation work included managing nutrients, planting grass in bare pastures and installing more than 2,800 feet of cattle fencing.
Johnny Williams was one of the farmers who worked with NRCS in the watershed. Williams seeded good forage on his pastures and installed cross-fencing and a solar powered well on his ranch in northwestern Hancock County. The cross-fencing separates pastures into smaller ones, which reduces risk of grass being overgrazed and soil erosion.
The solar-powered well uses renewable energy to produce water. Since the well takes the place of a pond, less nitrogen and cattle waste are distributed into the watershed. Plus, because his land is located in the buffer zone of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Stennis Space Center, solar energy was a must.
The fencing, stronger plantings and well help Williams reduce runoff of nutrients into waterways.
Nutrients impair water quality, and in high quantities, can cause algal blooms and decrease oxygen in water.
“We wanted to improve the environment,” Williams said. “I eat oysters and shrimp all the time. I don’t want the algae growing in the bay. That’s what the nitrogen was doing.”
In 2009, the original 2001 and 2003 sampling location was surveyed again by MDEQ. This time, the creek received a score of 76.5. In addition, data was also collected at two new sites on Orphan Creek, and the scores were 78.9 and 82.
As a result of the improvement, Orphan Creek was assessed as attaining aquatic life and is no longer considered impaired.
While the need for conservation work continues, farmers and different agencies are showing how a positive difference can be made through voluntary conservation. Williams encourages more farmers and ranchers to take advantage of the assistance available through NRCS.