“Water is a living thing; it is life itself. In it life began. And everything that lives in water requires oxygen. It is also a moving thing. A burden bearer, water can carry off great loads of humanity’s leavings—but … as the oxygen in water is used up by waste … the living creatures in water begin to die. First, of course, go the higher types—until finally only the rat-tailed maggots and other such low pollutional forms are left—and then, nothing.”
Wilma Dykeman, The French Broad, 1955
Predating even the ancient Appalachian Mountains, the French Broad is said to be the third-oldest river in the world. The Cherokee called it the “Long Man,” and its tributaries were known as the “Chattering Children,” for reasons evident to anyone who’s ever sat and listened to water rushing over the rocks in a streambed.
Staffers at the North Carolina Division of Water Quality have a more prosaic name for the venerable artery and its thousands of miles of feeder streams: the French Broad River basin. And thanks to the federal Clean Water Act of the 1970s, the river’s condition has improved dramatically since the days when, as Asheville author Wilma Dykeman wrote, the dreadful-smelling water was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”
But the law also requires state agencies to monitor the condition of public waterways, and the latest word isn’t good. The most recent findings reveal a sharp increase in the number of Western North Carolina streams that are becoming inhospitable to the creatures that occur there naturally. According to every water-quality expert interviewed for this story, the No. 1 pollutant is sediment—a byproduct of WNC’s current development boom.
Sediment in streams can destroy habitat for many kinds of fish and insects, threatening aquatic ecosystems. Compounding the problem is storm-water runoff, which dumps pesticides, grease, motor oil, litter and other nasty stuff into the water.
The most effective fix for sediment problems, experts say, is establishing buffers along stream banks to filter out pollutants and reduce the impact of flooding.
But here’s where science and politics sometimes collide. Because although the state requires 30-foot filtration zones along waterways, scientists say they’re too small to really do the job. “Basically, it was a political compromise to only require 30 feet,” says Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, who holds a degree in environmental policy and sustainable development from N.C. State. Opponents of buffers, however, maintain that they infringe on individual property rights. And lawmakers are often caught in the middle.
Meanwhile, in Asheville and vicinity, things are coming to a head. An attempt last summer to require bigger buffers proved highly controversial, and the city eventually settled for the minimum 30 feet, rather than the 50 feet recommended by staff.
But Council members vowed to revisit the issueƒ, and after months of discussions, the Watershed Policy Committee is due to give its recommendations soon, setting the stage for yet another battle.
An April 15 Council update by the committee gave a hint of what may lie ahead. “Inflated environmental concerns have been used to infringe on individual property rights,” thundered Council member