Clear as mud

“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.”

Attention, shoppers: More than 20 shopping carts were spotted in the Swannanoa River last month. Photo by Jonathan Welch

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.

Water through the years

by Rebecca Bowe

• 1926 – Bee Tree reservoir built to provide drinking water for the city of Asheville.

• 1954 – Burnett (aka North Fork) reservoir built to provide additional drinking water for Asheville and environs. The North Fork of the Swannanoa River, Sugar Fork and several unnamed tributaries drain the protected, forested watershed and flow into the lake.

• 1972 – Clean Water Act passed. Federal law requires all units of government to take action to improve and sustain surface-water quality. This leads to significant progress in reducing point-source pollution and controlling nonpoint sources in major cities.

• 1989 – Referendum vote overturns a proposal to tap the French Broad River as a drinking-water source.

• 1999 – Mills River water-treatment plant built at the confluence of the Mills and French Broad rivers to provide additional drinking water.

• 2005 – Mills River treatment plant adds an intake pipe to tap the French Broad River.

• 2006 – The first Watershed Policy Committee convened to advise Asheville City Council on revising its storm-water and erosion-control ordinance, which must be done to comply with the Clean Water Act’s phase II storm-water regulations.

• July/August 2007 – Public meetings are held to discuss storm-water ordinance revisions.

• Aug. 21, 2007 – City Council adopts revised ordinance and sends it back to the Watershed Policy Committee and Planning and Zoning Commission for potential revision.

• October 2007 – The reconvened Watershed Policy Committee begins meeting regularly.

• April 15, 2008 – Watershed Policy Committee updates City Council.

• April 25, 2008 – Bee Tree reservoir scheduled to reopen after extensive repairs.

• Summer 2008 – Watershed Policy Committee recommendations on aquatic buffers and other ordinance revisions due to go to City Council.


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


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One thought on “Clear as mud

  1. Hartwell Carson

    For the first time since the passage of the Clean Water Act the French Broad is now declining. There is no section of the river in Buncombe or Madison County that is not impaired and safe to swim. This is the most important story in our region and I would like to thank the Mt Express for covering this.

    The public can also logon to the Riverkeeper’s Muddy Water Watch website at to view pollution sites around the watershed.

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