Nothing sparks an online debate among Asheville-based social media groups faster than a question concerning the cleanliness of the French Broad River. Advocates for water activities say they’ve spent countless hours in the river without so much as a tummy ache, while opponents maintain that they wouldn’t dare stick a toe in the water. And being a local doesn’t necessarily put someone on one side of the dispute or the other.
“Some folks say, ‘It’s dirty,’ and, ‘No way. I don’t want to get in there, man,’” says French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson with Asheville nonprofit MountainTrue. “There’s also a lot of locals that have seen what the river used to be and think it’s dramatically cleaner than it used to be back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. They tend to think, ‘This is great,’ and they enjoy the river. And both of those perspectives are not wrong.”
For our latest installment of WTF — Want the Facts? — Xpress sat down with Carson to answer some of the most pressing questions about the French Broad and learn what’s safe or not regarding Asheville’s beloved, and belittled, ancient river.
What makes the river ‘dirty’?
Carson says that contamination in the French Broad comes from several different sources. Weather events — primarily, lots of rain — can lead to runoff from nearby plant- or livestock-based agriculture. Sewer overflows and saturated septic fields can also seep into the river, all of which can lead to spikes of E. coli, a bacterium that can cause illness.
E. coli is also an indicator of other, more harmful microbes, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia and Shigella. Contact with or consumption of contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness or skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurological and wound infections. The most commonly reported symptoms are stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and low-grade fever.
In general, waterways that are located farther away from urban areas and lands that lack many agriculture or industrial pollution sources are the cleanest and least affected by stormwater runoff.
What has been done to clean things up?
The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 created new regulations that reduced and restricted the dumping of pollutants into waterways. The law also developed new water quality standards that required industrial and agricultural facilities, as well as governments, to test and meet clean water goals. Now in its 50th year, the law has been credited with keeping billions of pounds of pollution out of rivers, streams and other bodies of water across the country.
“The Clean Water Act was really the galvanizing force around the country and can really be considered an environmental success story,” Carson says. “It dramatically improved water quality around the country, certainly on the French Broad as well.”
Since then, Carson explains, federal, state and local agencies, as well as environmental nonprofits like MountainTrue, have continued to advocate for litter enforcement, participate in cleanup efforts, install rain gardens and employ other runoff management tools to filter pollutants out of local waterways.
The French Broad River’s early advocates included Jean Webb and Karen Cragnolin, who helped organize RiverLink, a nonprofit focused on the environmental and economic vitality of the river. Under their leadership, the nonprofit implemented stormwater control measures and soil testing, constructed greenways and riverfront parks and furthered K-12 education emphasizing the economic and environmental importance of the waterway, among other achievements.
Ok, but can I actually swim in the river?
Yes and no. Carson says that whether it’s safe to swim in the French Broad can vary based on the location and timing, with much depending on rain-driven runoff or other unpredictable contaminants.
Carson recommends that folks planning to recreate in the river reference the Swim Guide, a monitoring program that provides weekly updates on E. coli levels at 85 popular water recreation areas throughout Western North Carolina, northeastern Tennessee and north Georgia. Testing occurs each Wednesday, and results are posted online ahead of the weekend.
“If you’re going somewhere routinely, and it’s clean 90% of the time, I think you should feel good about that,” he says. “If it’s clean 10% of the time, you might want to find a new [location].”
However, water quality testing has its limits, says Carson. The Swim Guide only monitors for E. coli, not all contaminants, and water quality can change rapidly, making the water safety assessment inaccurate.
Carson advises those on the river to always check the color of the water before diving in. How muddy or clear the water is serves as a good indication of water quality and whether it’s safe to swim.