On the waterfront

“Swannanoa, beautiful river keep flowin’. Swannanoa, where, oh, where are you goin’? Beautiful river, roll on.”

(c) 2002 Bert Brown

Assorted friends and lovers of the Swannanoa have been watching the latest assault on this hard-pressed little river with varying degrees of interest, outrage and dread. The Metropolitan Sewerage District’s earth-moving machines have been digging up the riverbanks like rabid mechanical dogs. But felling three-quarters-of-a-century-old trees and replacing wild (some say “rough”) bank foliage with industrial riprap (watermelon-sized rocks meant to stabilize the banks) is not the travesty it might seem at first — it’s actually good news for the local ecosystem.

MSD has been replacing a 75-year-old sewer pipe that’s buried along the banks of the river and crosses it at several points. Installed in the 1920s to provide sewer service to Black Mountain and the thriving textile factories that then lined the river, the pipe has collapsed in many places, creating underground sewage ponds and pouring raw sewage straight into the swirling waters.

Officially called the “North Swannanoa Sanitary Sewer Interceptor, Phase II, Section 2,” the current work — slated for completion next June but actually running ahead of schedule — represents the final installment of a 12-year, $43 million project to replace 24 miles of pipe between Asheville and its eastern neighbors Black Mountain, Montreat and Ridgecrest. There are older pipes in Buncombe County, but a 1980 report called the Swannanoa section the “most severely deteriorated in the system.” And that was 22 years ago, folks.

From a modern environmental perspective, the obvious question is, Why on God’s green earth would you put a sewer line in a river? The answer has to do with economic and topographical realities. And in the continuing struggle between what’s affordable and what’s environmentally sound, this project appears to be a good example of, if not a win/win, then at least a gentlemanly compromise. Despite some citizen concerns about defoliating the river corridor, the expert consensus seems to be that in the long run, the improvements will benefit both the river and its wild inhabitants.

“Right of way did not exist along the route of the old sewer, other than the right to maintain it,” MSD Project Manager Bill Conner explains, “so we had to acquire right of way for the new sewer anyway.” But the 70-foot-wide construction easement is pinched by both new and old highway 70, existing buildings and the river itself. Hills and mountains also present obstacles, because sewage — ruled by the relentless law of gravity — has to run downhill. So while there may be other options in the fields at the east end of the Swannanoa Valley, at the narrower west end, the pipe follows the path of least resistance — the river.

Besides plugging some ancient, major leaks, Conner says MSD is also taking the opportunity to install the new pipe below the river bed, replacing the old pipes raised on piers (which trapped debris and clogged the river channel). The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has continued to stock the Swannanoa with pan-sized trout during the sewer work, and Conner says the fish have done quite well. “I can attest to this — I have caught some of them,” he remarks.

Michael Miller of RiverLink is also interested in the fish. He agrees with Conner that the tighter pipe will mean less fecal coliform bacteria in the river, although the larger diameter (the new pipes will be about 15 inches wider than the old ones) will mean more development in the upper Swannanoa Valley. “My hope,” says Miller (the nonpoint-source-pollution specialist for the nonprofit), “is that we can get the Swannanoa back to a productive trout stream.” To that end, RiverLink is staging a Swannanoa Appreciation Day for kids on Oct. 6(See box, page XX). There’ll be exhibits, activities and plenty of trout — both live and grilled.

The state Department of Environment & Natural Resources has designated the Swannanoa a class C river, meaning humans should have “infrequent contact” with the water: no swimming, no wading, certainly no drinking. (The French Broad used to be a class C, too, until somebody noticed all the boaters and other recreational users. It was upped to a class B without any change in the discharge level, says Miller.) A report by the Tennessee Valley Authority last year noted that fish at the lower end of the Swannanoa, around Biltmore Estate, suffered from black spot — a sign of excess nitrogen in the water, most likely from fertilizer and animal waste. (We humans, by the way, also fall under the animal rubric.)

Miller, too, sees the construction activity causing trouble for the trout. “There’s less shade, which raises the water temperature,” he explains. “Trout can’t reproduce in temperatures above 70 degrees. The runoff from the Ingles distribution center parking lot goes into a holding pond, where it is heated by the sun before being let into the river. This raises the temperature again.” But the Swannanoa’s No. 1 pollutant, says Miller, is sediment; silt (from construction sites like this one) covers the fish eggs and smothers them.

Both MSD and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted environmental assessments at the beginning of the project, says Conner, and both concluded that it would have no significant impact (presumably, they mean no negative impact). “We, the MSD, recognize the need to be good stewards of the environment,” notes Conner. “And we feel we have accomplished just that when we have the opportunity to see a project of this magnitude through to completion.”

From sewers to greenways

In some folks’ eyes, though, the real work is only beginning. Now that the construction is nearing completion, they’re turning their attention to what can be done to restore and enhance the riverbanks.

The Greenways, Walkability and Biking Task Force, an informal group promoting recreational use of the river corridor, has presented a plan to the town aldermen calling for creating a series of greenways (unpaved, natural paths suitable for nonmotorized traffic) connecting the different sections of Black Mountain — and the Swannanoa River is the backbone of the plan. Task-force Chair Mike Sobol also sits on the MSD board, which has given the group blanket permission to use the sewer rights of way (many of which follow the river) for greenways. The more difficult task of convincing private landowners that having a public footpath running through their property is an asset still remains to be done.

Task-force member Stephanie Wilds believes it’s doable, however. She envisions a joint effort by the Black Mountain Recreation and Park Department, the Police Department, MSD, Montreat College, local landowners and self-powered citizens making it all happen. And there’s reason for optimism: Bi-Lo has already given the town the two acres of river frontage behind its Black Mountain store. Montreat College has given permission to run a path through its new “In The Oaks” campus and is considering a second one. Wilds hopes these contributions are just the beginning. “Parks, greenways, the river — you can’t talk about one without talking about the others,” she observes.

The Greenways Task Force has published a master plan that calls for graveled paths running from Montreat in the north to the former Black Mountain watershed in the south; from Ridgecrest in the east to Lake Tomahawk in the west. As yet there are no plans for Swannanoa, the little unincorporated community squeezed in between Asheville and Black Mountain (and recently abandoned by its longtime parent, the Beacon Blanket Company). But MSD has at least cleared a path along the river, and perhaps public-spirited Swannanoa residents will seize the opportunity to create their own river walk.

Standing in the weedy field behind Bi-Lo, a muddy scar marking the recent pipe replacement, Wilds squints in the bright sunlight, envisioning a pretty park with benches and tables overlooking the burbling Swannanoa. In her mind, a tree-lined path along the river is sprinkled with joggers, pedalers, strollers and a fisherman or two. “I just want a place where I can take a sandwich on a hot day and get away from people,” she exclaims. And perhaps that kind of enlightened self-interest is what will finally save the Swannanoa.

The case of the missing heifer

About four years ago, in a Sound of Music-esque mountain meadow west of Black Mountain, a brown-and-white cow disappeared. Alien abduction? Rustlers? Teenage prank? No, the culprit was an ancient clay sewer pipe — or rather, the lack of one. In places, the old pipe has collapsed, and the liberated sewage has created a veritable underground pond (which the unlucky bovine fell into, happily landing on her feet). MSD sent in a rescue team, which built a ramp so the cow could walk — with dignity — from the stinking pit. Results: The cow was saved to be served another day, and that section of the sewer pipe, anyway, got moved up on the replacement schedule.

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