Last week’s heavy rainfall pushed E. coli levels in Asheville’s portion of the French Broad River past the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety threshold, posing a health threat to swimmers and tubers.
“After rain, the bacteria data spikes, dramatically in some places,” says longtime French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “Last week, every single site was over the limit because of all that rain we had.”
With the help of volunteers, Carson tests water weekly at 22 sites on the river from April to October. They use an EPA-approved method to measure E. coli levels and report their findings on Swim Guide, a website that publishes water-safety ratings.
“Overall this summer, our sites have been pretty good: An average of 75-80 percent of the time, most of our sites have been at safe-for-swimming levels,” Carson reports. “Most of the time the French Broad is pretty clean, and its tributaries are, too.”
Rainfall, however, carries sediment and other contaminants into the river. E. coli is transmitted through human and animal feces.
“An animal farm that doesn’t fence out any of their cattle could have a really big impact on the stream if they’re getting down in the river and using the river as a bathroom,” says Carson.
Bacteria isn’t the only threat to water quality.
“When we’re talking about Western North Carolina and the French Broad River basin, contaminants like metals, bacteria and chemicals are not as big an issue as sediment itself,” says Ed Williams, environmental specialist with the North Carolina Division of Water Resources. “Sediment causes way more damage. When sediment goes into the stream, it fills in all those interstitial spaces” between rocks in a riverbed. “Then there’s no habitat for fish, insects, amphibians and salamanders. The whole food chain suffers.”
Although soil washes into the river daily, urban development, notes Williams, accelerates erosion. And while sedimentation may not be a primary concern of recreational river users, it can have a devastating impact.
“We have some really important aquatic species. We have rare, cool fish and mussels here in Western North Carolina. We have hellbenders, a salamander that grows up to 2 ½ feet long — they’re awesome,” says Williams. “Those things are going to be gone unless we do a better job with water quality.”
His department issues permits for businesses wanting to discharge wastewater into North Carolina’s rivers. This is what’s called point-source pollution, he explains, because it originates from a single identifiable location.
Across Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties, 18 facilities hold permits to discharge treated wastewater directly into the French Broad , according to data on the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources website. Four are in Buncombe County.
Monitoring such sources is easy, notes Williams. “Think about it: You’ve just got one pipe that discharges to the river. We can go down and we can see it, we can sample it, we can do all kinds of things to characterize it and make sure that point source is in compliance.”
Big stuff, little stuff
Nonpoint-source pollution, such as when snowmelt or rainfall washes contaminants into water sources, is harder to manage.
“There are 2 million different things going on out there in the watershed; you can’t get a handle on it,” says Williams. “Each and every one of us is doing something to cause a problem in the river. It’s widespread: It’s everywhere.”
The state also tests French Broad River water monthly at about eight sites, he notes. “We’ve been testing the French Broad for the last 50 years.”
The Environmental Quality Institute also monitors water quality in the French Broad monthly. Volunteers draw samples from eight sites on the French Broad, five of them in Buncombe County, says Ann Marie Traylor, the nonprofit’s executive director. She, too, points the finger at urban and agricultural runoff. “Everyday pollution is really sediment and nutrients — bare soil that gets washed away into the water.”
Stabilizing soil, she notes, can reduce the amount of chemicals, nutrients and sediment that ends up in rivers and streams during heavy rains.
Construction sites, car care facilities and housing developments also contribute to nonpoint pollution when rain washes oil waste, pesticides and other contaminants into waterways, says Carson. “It’s a lot of little stuff that adds up.”
At the same time, he continues, “There are some big polluters still out there,” and past spills have had long-term implications for water quality.
“For example, you do have Duke Energy here, and we’ve been caught up in a big battle with them for five or six years to clean up their coal ash,” he explains. “Now they’re going to clean it up, but that’s only because we sued them.”
The decrease in industrial facilities along the French Broad in recent decades has eliminated most of those issues, says Carson, but “There definitely is still some of that that happens.”
The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 was a turning point in managing water quality in Western North Carolina, notes Williams. In the era of paper mills, factories and big industry, point-source pollution was rampant: These facilities didn’t even treat the effluent they dumped in the river.
“We don’t really see those types of things today,” he says. “The high volume of water that goes into the streams now is the result of impervious surfaces like parking lots and rooftops.”
Water quality is a complex issue, he continues, and public perception isn’t always accurate.
“The public sees a pipe with something coming out of it and going into the river. It’s easy to wrap your mind around that, because you can see it and it’s right there,” he says. “But all our roads, the houses we live in, all our parking lots, everything we do as human beings has an impact on water quality. That’s the part that’s hard to wrap our minds around. It’s really the part we need to understand better so everyone can take responsibility. You just can’t blame one company, or one person, or this or that for the problems in the river, because it’s caused by everyone.”