By Ryan Church, Engagement Intern

Two animal species that live in the Catawba River Basin, the Carolina Heelsplitter mussel and the Edmund’s Snaketail dragonfly, are both in danger of becoming extinct. Their peril arises almost entirely from human activities such as pollution in our creeks and lakes, industrial dumping into the waterways, construction of dams, and farm runoff, all of which allow high levels of pollutants to enter our waterways and disturb local populations. If we do not all do our part to keep the Catawba River Basin as clean as possible, we run the risk of losing these two animals, and many others, forever.

The Carolina Heelsplitter (Lasmigona decorata) is a freshwater mussel with a green-brown egg-shaped shell. Mussels are an especially important species since they filter the waters and keep it clean for other types of wildlife in the area. The Heelsplitter has been listed as federally endangered since June of 1993 and today, only 11 populations are known to exist. Pollution and the construction of dams negatively impacts Heelsplitters in two different ways. First, since mussels are filter feeders, they suck in the creek water and filter out food particles, as well as chemicals and other pollutants from the water. They are not only affected by ingesting the pollution, but they are also sensitive to water quality changes, meaning that if pollution levels rise, the mussels are not be able to reproduce. Second, Heelsplitters are entirely dependent on local types of fish because during reproduction, the larvae cling to a fish host and then drop when they become mature. When dams are built, it destroys their habitat and drives the local fish away as well. When local species of fish are no longer there to allow the mussels to reproduce, their population declines sharply.

The Edmund’s Snaketail (Ophiogomphus edmundo) is very rare species of dragonfly with known populations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. These insects are green with two yellow stripes and black legs. The Edmund’s Snaketail was thought to be extinct during the 1970s and 1980s but was rediscovered during surveying in 1994. Today, there are a few healthy populations in South Carolina as well as the occasional sighting of a single dragonfly elsewhere. Like the Carolina Heelsplitter, the Edmund’s Snaketail is also very sensitive to sudden changes in water quality, which typically arise from human activities like pollution. Since they live almost exclusively near rivers, lakes, and creeks, it is imperative that we do our best to preserve these habitats in order to ensure the survival of the Edmund’s Snaketail, and others, for generations to come.

The factors that contribute most to the decline of local species include pollution, industrial dumping, farm runoff, and dam construction. All of these actions alter water quality by introducing pollutants and building dams both eliminates potential wildlife habitats and impedes the natural flow of the river. If we all do our part, it is possible to revitalize these ecosystems and allow them to thrive indefinitely. Remember, the quality of the Catawba doesn’t just affect animals, it is also the main source of drinking water for 2.3 million people in and around Charlotte, North Carolina.

If you want to make a POSITIVE impact, there are many easy steps that you can take in order to help keep the Catawba River clean. The first, and most obvious, method is to ensure that trash is properly disposed of. After heavy rains, massive amounts of litter runoff into the creeks and lakes within the Catawba River Basin, allowing pollutants to enter the water and harming the wildlife that live in and around the waterways. In order to really make a difference, we all need to take responsibility for our garbage and also spread awareness to other about the negative effects that littering has on wildlife. Some easy ways to help include using reusable materials, properly disposing of trash, and volunteering at a local lake cleanup. The Catawba Riverkeeper hosts dozens of local cleanup events, including the Catawba Riversweep on October 3, 2020.

Second, holding others accountable for detrimental actions, such as dumping pollutants into the river, is imperative to keep the river drinkable, fishable, and swimmable. Since all of Mecklenburg County and the surrounding areas drink from the Catawba River, we must hold accountable any public or private entities that threaten our waters with illegal dumping and discharge. If you see evidence of illegal dumping, please report it by going to catawbariverkeeper.org or calling 704-679-9494 x105.

If we all do our part to cut down on pollution levels in the many streams, creeks, and lakes within the Catawba River Basin, we can ensure that local species are given a chance to stave off extinction. Not only does water quality matter to animals, it should matter to everyone living in and around the basin. We all need to work together in order to protect the river for the species living there, keep our drinking water clean and healthy, and ensure that the lakes and creeks remain beautiful and open for recreation activities.

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