At 6.21 miles, the Town Branch Creek is a spring-fed stream almost everyone in Tahlequah has probably crossed at some point.
The creek is a critical piece to the Tahlequah ecosystem, economy and aesthetic appeal, so Friends of the Town Branch Creek was formed in 2016 to look after it. In a partnership with Blue Thumb, the FTBC is essentially an outreach program for the city's Department of Stormwater Management.
It was first established to address the creek's E. coli problem. Town Branch is still on the Environmental Protection Agency 303(d) list of impaired waters, but the FTBC is working to change that.
"E. coli is a very difficult issue to address, because it's a bacteria from fecal matter of humans and animals," said Jahna Hill, stormwater manager for the city of Tahlequah and founder of FTBC. "So sources are sporadic."
The group has two members who regularly go out and collect E. coli samples using a Blue Thumb method each month, to help educate the public. At the FTBC meetings every month, the data is presented, offering insight to the E. coli levels in the creek.
Jason Cooper is one of the volunteers who takes the E. coli samples every month.
"I've been here the majority of my life, said Cooper. "Jahna and I became friends, and she started talking about all the creeks and I got interested in the things she talked about. She wanted to start a group to help keep the creek clean and healthy. I thought it was a good idea so I'm a part of that. I'm able to use [Northeastern State University's] incubators to cook the water."
While the samples are ideal for educational purposes, Hill said the data wouldn't hold up in court, because it wasn't tested at a state-certified lab. However, Hill also takes samples through the city's Storm Water Program, and she sends those to a state-certified lab. For reliable data, she has to collect sample for two years during the recreational periods, between May and September.
"After September, I'll put all the data together," said Hill. "If the average is below the state standard, then I'm going to present it to the Water Resources Board and the appropriate agencies and ask them to consider taking the creek off the dirty water list."
The Friends of Town Branch Creek deal with other issues besides the E. coli program, like trash or sedimentation that finds its way into the stream. The sedimentation and dirt that gets into the river changes the color of the water, which some might find unappealing, but the fish are probably worse off.
During a Tuesday meeting, Hill showed two photos of fish - a Longear sunfish and a Largemouth bass - found in Ross Creek, which joins the Town Branch Creek before flowing into the Illinois River.
"There are 72 fish species in the Ozark ecoregion that do not exist anywhere else in the world, so we're very fortunate," she said. "Also, we have many aquatic and macro-invertebrates that live here. Dirt travels in water a very far distance. Sediment - when it settles, it clogs the little spaces that aquatic life need to reproduce and lay their eggs in those spaces."
The FTBC coordinates throughout the year to actively engage the Tahlequah community. The group had a booth at last year's Tahlequah H2O Celebration and the Red Fern Festival. Hill also mans booths at the Tahlequah Farmers' Market as part of the Storm Water Program, but she said she talks about FTBC information while she's there.
The Friends also have an upcoming project to help keep the creek clean.
"That spring flows to the creek and it flows year-round," said Hill, pointing to the spring outside of Brookside Center by Sequoyah Park. "We're going to put a 3-foot-high privacy fence around that spring, just to keep grass clippings out and to address more safety concerns."