Enhanced French Broad monitoring highlights water safety issues

MountainTrue E coli sampling
IN THE BAG: MountainTrue regularly samples 41 sites across the French Broad River watershed for E. coli. Photo courtesy of Hartwell Carson

“As busy as it gets” is what Google Maps has to say about Hominy Creek River Park, a popular launch point on the French Broad River. On the first Saturday of summer, cars line the road for a half mile on either side. People slather on sunblock and push off from the sandy shore in inner tubes, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. Tubers drift downstream at a lazy pace while the hot sun glints across the murky green-brown water.

A few swimmers submerge themselves to cool off, perhaps unaware or unconcerned that this particular stretch of river has failed to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for E. coli bacteria, even though that ranking is readily accessible via Swim Guide. The online resource partners with affiliated nonprofits and governments to provide free water quality information about beaches, lakes and streams around the world.

One of those affiliates is French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of MountainTrue. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the nonprofit’s staff conducts weekly E. coli testing at 41 sites in the French Broad watershed. The samples are collected on Wednesday, and the results are published on Swim Guide and on the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Information System website. But as Carson explains, “Statistics can change, potentially dramatically, whether it’s through the rains or some pollution source,” placing possibly significant limits on the data’s usefulness at any given moment. E. coli is found in the feces of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and high levels can pose health risks for swimmers.

The local nonprofit is working to remedy that lack. A $25,670 grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina is helping MountainTrue continue testing begun last year; eventually, the group wants to be able to give rivergoers up-to-the-minute information about E. coli levels.

“The only thing better than what we’re currently doing,” says Carson, “is to set up a correlation between something you can measure in real time and E. coli, which requires an 18- to 24-hour processing time.” The group hopes that turbidity, the amount of cloudiness and sediment in the water, might prove to be an accurate predictor of E. coli levels, but it’s too soon to tell. The current system uses seven strategically placed gauges that provide turbidity readings every 15 minutes. Besides providing recreational river users with more up-to-date information, the testing gives MountainTrue a better sense of when and where the pollution is occurring.

Tracking the culprits

The nonprofit, some of whose partners have been monitoring water quality in the area for decades, wasn’t satisfied with simply knowing that the French Broad was polluted: It wanted to find out why. Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the N.C. General Assembly last year, MountainTrue has been able to conduct DNA analysis of water samples to determine the source of the bacteria. “What our sampling showed,” notes Carson, “is that it was largely from cow. Human definitely still was prevalent, but cow was the most predominant sample indicator we got.”

Human waste enters waterways via sewer overflows, which Carson says can be reduced by “upgrading infrastructure, improving pipe sizes, reducing leaks and reducing the ability for rainwater to get into the system.” The final report and recommendations from Asheville’s Stormwater Task Force, he says, should be coming to City Council soon.

In addition to DNA testing, the state grant enabled MountainTrue to begin infrared imaging of the Asheville and Hendersonville sewer systems. Photos are taken at night in the winter, when the temperature differential makes sewage stand out against the colder river water, enabling the group to investigate problem areas and identify sewer leaks.

Stormwater runoff from farmland is the biggest source of E. coli in the French Broad. Education and funding are available to farmers through the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Agriculture Cost Share Program and Agricultural Water Resource Assistance Program. Structures such as fencing to keep cattle away from streams, and buffers that keep runoff out of creeks, can help reduce pollution levels. Demand for such assistance far exceeds availability, however, and MountainTrue is pushing for increased funding for these programs, which the group’s website says “could drastically reduce bacterial pollution in WNC waters.”

Ann Marie Traylor, executive director of the Black Mountain-based Environmental Quality Institute, stresses that these programs are there to assist, not punish, farmers. “They’re working without passing blame or imposing fines,” she explains.

Tackling the problems

According to state Sen. Chuck Edwards, “The state is making monumental investments to improve soil and water quality.” He says that S105, the Senate version of the proposed state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, would add “two full-time soil-and-water engineers,” one of whom would be “dedicated to the western region and based in Fletcher.” Permanent funding for recreational water testing would be transferred to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which he hopes will provide “more consistent and reliable data.”

Edwards cautions, however, “The jury is still out on the feasibility of real-time bacteria reporting for a river that carries as much water as the French Broad, and at the rate it flows.” The Senate bill includes additional allocations for stream debris removal and water and sewer infrastructure. The state has been operating without a budget since July 1, when the new fiscal year began, and the House version is not expected until sometime in August.

A changing climate

Meanwhile, MountainTrue has charted a dramatic shift in water safety levels over the past four years. At Pearson Bridge, for example, river water met the EPA’s safe swimming threshold 81% of the time in 2016 but failed 81% of the time in 2020. New weather patterns driven by climate change, says Carson, are to blame.

“We’re getting more, harder rain events, and all of our pollution is triggered by runoff,” he explains. “If you have a dry year or a year where you get a normal amount of rain, you’re going to have less runoff, less pollution in the river and fewer sewer overflows. If you look at last year, there were a lot of really heavy, hard rain events that increased runoff.”

Still, the fact that there’s some level of pollution in river water doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding it altogether. “What we encourage folks to do,” Carson says about Swim Guide, “is to use it as a way to help them decide how they want to recreate and where. If one area is clean and one is dirty, then maybe they want to go paddle there, or maybe they want to go canoeing instead of tubing.”

Away from urban centers, says Traylor, the region’s waterways tend to do a much better job of meeting the EQI’s Stream Monitoring Information Exchange standards. “We’re fortunate in Western North Carolina to have protected national forest areas,” she points out, which results in less development, erosion and urban runoff. That undeveloped land, notes Traylor, also helps protect the headwaters, further boosting the overall quality of French Broad River water.

And with or without access to test results, she says, there’s a relatively easy way for those hoping to get out and play on the water this summer to make on-the-spot decisions about how to stay safe. “Generally, if water looks muddy, if it looks curdled, I wouldn’t put my head under and I wouldn’t put any open wounds in.”


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