Chamber of Commerce addresses water quality, development

SAFE TO DRINK?: Fecal matter from livestock farming, stormwater runoff and excess sediment are the top pollutants in the French Broad River, says RiverLink watershed resources manager Renee Fortner. Photo courtesy of Conserving Carolina

On heels of a 2021 study that showed the power of the French Broad River as an economic driver, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce convened a panel to discuss the importance of keeping that engine clean. The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Policy On Tap event was held Nov. 17 at White Labs Kitchen & Tap.

A 2021 study of the economic impact of the French Broad watershed conducted by Dr. Steve Ha of Western Carolina University showed that tens of thousands of jobs – from restaurant and lodging staff to rafting guides – rely on a river free from pollutants.

But river conservation has been an ongoing challenge. Previous generations had to combat industrial pollution flowing into the river. Today, pollution is caused  by development, says Lisa Raleigh, RiverLink’s executive director, who led the panel discussion.

Panelist Anne Keller, RiverLink board chairperson and retired biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency, shared findings from the economic impact study. The average group visiting the French Broad River spent $1,276 per trip. In total, the river contributes $3.8 billion to the region. Additionally, over 38,000 jobs are supported by activity due to the river, the study found.

An ‘impaired’ river

Raleigh noted how conservationists like Karen Cragnolin focused on remediating industrial pollution in the river, such as oil and diesel residue from cars in the junkyard where Karen Cragnolin Park now sits. (Cragnolin, who died in January, was the first executive director of RiverLink.)

Excess sediment, fecal matter from livestock farming and stormwater runoff are top pollutants nowadays, explained panelist Renee Fortner, RiverLink’s watershed resources manager. She noted how the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality recently added 19 miles of the French Broad River to a list of “impaired” waterways after testing found the fecal coliform bacteria exceeded the amount that is safe for swimming.

Fecal coliform bacteria binds to sediment within the river, Fortner explained, and this “sediment is widely considered to be the No. 1 pollutant in the French Broad River.” The excess sediment originates from eroding stream banks and soil erosion from construction sites, she said. But a silver lining to the river being designated as impaired is it opens up additional funding to address water quality, Fortner said.

Fortner also pointed out that “water quality in the river varies wildly” based on the weather, given the quantity of pollutants from rainwater. Sometimes the French Broad River is “crystal clear” and water quality — and recreation possibilities — are good.

‘Green’ vs. ‘gray’

Days that the French Broad River is crystal clear are the ones that Shelton Steele and Joe Balcken, co-owners of Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins, are counting on. They outlined how they used sustainable techniques to develop the Amboy Road property, which opened in the fall. (Wrong Way is located on the property across the street from Karen Cragnolin Park, which abuts  the river.)

Balcken said “nobody wanted to touch this property” on which Wrong Way sits due to the steep slopes. But he and his business partner found the RiverLink’s Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan, which maps out environmentally sound economic development along the French Broad River, to be “a blueprint for us as businesses.” The city of Asheville’s Department of Development Services told the developers “this is what you have to adhere to,” Balcken explained. That was helpful because it allowed them to incorporate sustainable building practices into their financial model, he said. (Regulations for development, including stormwater regulation, are laid out in Asheville’s unified development ordinance, or UDO, Fortner tells Xpress.)

Stormwater has been managed in the past with “gray” infrastructure, which refers to the pipes and gutters that funnel untreated, unfiltered water into the river, Fortner explains. “You can imagine all the pollutants,” she said. “That’s why we’re promoting green infrastructure: keeping water on-site and giving it an opportunity to soak into the ground.”

Wrong Way campground installed an underground water catchment system, or drainage area, the size of an Olympic swimming pool, Shelton said. The catchment system, which sits on gravel beds underground, captures rainwater where it can seep into the soil rather than allowing it to run down the steep property onto Amboy Road and into the park and river. “A lot of our design was interpreting different challenges” posed by the hillside landscape, Shelton said.

The panel also addressed how local governments can ensure that businesses developing along the French Broad River do so in an environmentally sound manner. Shelton said the duo worked “hand in hand with the city from the get-go.”

Keller said more elected officials need to be educated about protecting the water quality of the French Broad River, and its impact on area businesses. Asheville has “so many priorities — we have to elevate this as a priority,” she said.

She said the city’s planning department needs to talk about green development in a different way because developers are not always educated about how to lessen the impact of their properties.

Shelton said he believes that cities need sustainable building regulations. But he also noted that as a developer, he knows building in the mountains is “complicated” and may require flexibility. (Support for sustainable growth in Asheville is a component of the Municipal Climate Action Plan, which will be presented to City Council in 2023, according to the city’s Department of Sustainability website.)

The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s members will be key to French Broad River conservation through sustainable development and business practices, and by using their community influence to advocate for conservation, she said. Residents and tourists alike would stop using the French Broad River if water quality worsened, which would have adverse impacts on area businesses, she said. “Take care of her and help her be healthy, or we’re going to lose her and we’re all going to be in a bad spot,” Keller said.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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