Four years on the French Broad

When Phillip Gibson was hired as French Broad Riverkeeper in 2001, he had four goals: educate, involve, plan, act. But he soon found that his first order of business was convincing people about what a Riverkeeper isn’t.

A lot of people, he explains, were afraid “that I was going to be invading private property or taking private property.” There was also the mistaken idea that the job was connected with the American Heritage Rivers initiative — a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched by President Bill Clinton in 1997. (The French Broad was a candidate for the designation, which turned into a political hot potato locally and withered on the vine.)

So Gibson — a native of Kentucky — found he had to tread lightly. His own family had lost 3,200 acres to a Tennessee Valley Authority project years ago, and a family cemetery was relocated in the process. That history stood him in good stead as he began to interact with the 25 municipalities, eight county governments and half a million people in the North Carolina portion of the big river’s watershed.

And his hands-on, face-to-face connection with the region’s people, says Gibson, has made him the “Dear Abby of water quality — that’s kind of how I’ve acted during the whole four years.”

Between a rock and a hurricane

The French Broad travels from Rosman, N.C., to Knoxville, Tenn., where it joins the Holston to form the Tennessee River. And Gibson was the French Broad’s first official Riverkeeper — a full-time advocate, educator and just plan fan. The trademarked name is licensed through the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Waterkeeper Alliance. All told, there are 132 such “keepers” monitoring bays, rivers and coasts around the world; 10 of these water advocates are in North Carolina.

“We were looking for ways that we could engage the region,” explains Karen Cragnolin of RiverLink, the Asheville nonprofit that hired Gibson. Local awareness of river issues has definitely increased during the Riverkeeper’s tenure, she says. Gibson’s last day as Riverkeeper was June 15.

In the past four years, he’s faced challenges ranging from the 2003 closing of Pisgah Forest’s Ecusta paper mill (Gibson was involved with both the employees and the environmental hazards at the plant) to working with individual families along the French Broad and its tributaries who worry about the effects of pollution on their children.

One of Gibson’s pet outreach projects has been the Clear Water Contractor Workshops, which he originally helped set up through Western Carolina University’s Mountain Resource Center. To date, more than 700 people have taken the workshops, which teach local building contractors the rudiments of sedimentation prevention on construction sites. Organizations across the state are now using the model, and N.C. State University is creating a standardized curriculum for wider distribution.

Another favorite project is a Web-based, interactive mapping program covering the French Broad watershed (available at Its 77 data layers include everything from public parks to water-quality monitoring sites to industries with permits to discharge effluent into the river.

And, as nature would have it, Gibson’s time in the trenches has also included last year’s two historic floods (the result of hurricanes Frances and Ivan). Those dramatic events, he says, kept him plenty busy and probably did more for river awareness than all his speeches and projects combined. The floods graphically emphasized the need for a watershed plan, says Gibson. “Every watershed needs that, but it’s going to have to come from engaged citizens and local leadership. Because the hurricanes also showed that what happens in Rosman, Hendersonville, Asheville affects somebody downstream.”

Am I my river’s keeper?

The floods also highlighted the need for more water-quality monitoring and helped identify sources of pollution along the banks and stream gauges in need of upgrading — the kinds of things that can result from a lack of planning, Gibson points out.

Another aspect of the Riverkeeper’s work has been serving on the Asheville Stormwater Advisory Committee. Stormwater — an issue that Gibson says is not going to go away — washes toxins and sediment into the French Broad and exacerbates flooding. “You have these large-scale developments going on,” he explains, that contribute to the rapidly increasing amount of impermeable surfaces (such as pavement and roof areas) in the watershed. “You’re beginning to eliminate ground water, because you’re shoving it all into streams faster,” says Gibson. And at 25 percent impervious surface, he points out, “You’ve pretty much eliminated diversity of species [in the river]. Your waterway is now ‘urban’ — like water in a ditch. So land-use patterns have an impact on [water] quality and quantity.”

“There’s this mindset,” continues Gibson, “that we have so much water we could attract industry. Shouldn’t we measure before we do that?” That’s a key mission he bequeathes to the new Riverkeeper — and the community at large.

One thing that has buoyed Gibson in his work is the passion for the river that he’s seen in the community. A particular source of inspiration was the late Bill Lyday, a longtime river advocate known as “Mr. Muskie” for his love of stalking the elusive muskellunge, a large fresh-water fish found in the French Broad.

Gibson has also had a network of fellow Riverkeepers to turn to for advice — especially his North Carolina colleagues on the Cape Fear, Catawba, Neuse, New and Tar-Pamlico rivers and at Cape Hatteras, Cape Fear and Cape Lookout on the coast.

But sometimes, the camaraderie extends beyond mere consultation. “We all got the Water Alliance logo [a sturgeon] tattooed on our bodies in an undisclosed place,” Gibson admits sheepishly (his is on the back of his shoulder). That happened in a fit of shared group fervor during a retreat in San Diego. “It’s so out of character for me,” he confesses.

The symbolism, however, is very much in character. “I so believe in the efforts of the Riverkeeper Alliance. It’s not about anti-business, anti-growth. What it is ‘anti’ is putting the burden of pollution on the backs of other people.”

Gibson will carry those Riverkeeper principles with him as he assumes a new position this week: director of research and community outreach for the Environmental Leadership Center at Warren Wilson College.

But what about the French Broad? Will there be a new Riverkeeper to replace Gibson? “Definitely,” says Cragnolin, adding that RiverLink also hopes to bring in more volunteers who can serve as “eyes, ears and noses” in the river’s behalf.


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