Hellbent on the River

Maria Wise helps preserve local waterways. Photo by Matt Rose

Maria Wise helps preserve local waterways. Photo by Matt Rose

Maria Wise played in the French Broad River as she grew up in Marshall, and those summer exploits in the cool water made her want to keep it clean for future generations.

“As I left for college, I just felt a strong desire to go into the environmental-protection field and conservation,” she says.

Now Wise is the Watershed Coordinator for the Mills River Partnership, a microlocal water-quality nonprofit. She’s also the featured speaker in August for Hendersonville Green Drinks, a monthly discussion forum produced by Henderson County environmental consortium MountainTrue.

Wise, who returned to Western North Carolina in 2001, will speak on a variety of topics ranging from the history of the threatened hellbender salamander, the Vanderbilts’ deeding of a water right-of-way to Hendersonville, and her job helping keep the Mills River clean.

What does a watershed coordinator do?
I oversee all of the projects that we do with landowners in the area to improve their land to keep sediment and runoff from entering the Mills River. … Some days I might spend with 300 fifth graders, educating them on clean water and the things they can do to help maintain the health of the river.

How do you specifically help homeowners and farmers?
We give them money to put into practices like grassed waterways or field buffers that keep sediment on their fields and not in the river, as well as river and stream restorations that stabilize the stream banks and increase the vegetative buffer.

You’ve worked in Florida and Chicago — how different is it being back in North Carolina?
In Chicago, I was doing vaccine development and working in a lab. That was my job straight out of college. I had to work my way through Florida to get back into the conservation and environmental field. They were all very different places with different concerns and problems.

Did you work with manatees in Florida?
I did. That’s kind of one thing where there is some continuity, because it’s an endangered species, and now here in the Mills River we have, maybe not endangered, but species of special concern. There’s the hellbender and mudpuppy [salamander], and the native trout. It continued my interest of helping preserve important species.

What are your favorite water activities?
I love getting out there and turning rocks over and seeing what critters I can find, because that’s such a good indicator of clean water. The more stonefly larvae or mayfly larvae or crawfish or hellbenders I can find just by turning rocks over is great. That’s my happy place.

Hendersonville Green Drinks, sponsored by Mountain True and featuring Maria Wise, happens at Black Bear Coffee (318 N. Main Street) Thursday, August 11, 6pm. Free. Call 828-258-8737 or see mountaintrue.org for more information.

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