The straight poop

Even as Western North Carolinians continue to battle winter, it won’t be long before the ground thaws and many of us will once again be making our way to local rivers to swim, boat, fish and otherwise enjoy the scenic beauty of our mountain streams. As we wade into them, however, we’ll confront the harsh reality that some of our favorite swimming holes and waterways are overrun with bacteria, such as E. coli and fecal coliform.

This is mostly due leaky sewer pipes and septic systems, failing or faulty wastewater-treatment plants, or animals (such as cows) that use the stream as a toilet.

Bacterial pollution is prevalent throughout the French Broad River watershed, but it’s largely unmonitored and therefore unresolved. This poses significant health concerns, because while nothing makes people happier than a nice refreshing dip in the river on a hot day, bacteria can make people sick, causing vomiting and fever. They can also rob the stream of critical amounts of oxygen, killing fish and other aquatic life.

Despite the importance of this issue, we have barely begun to scratch the surface in charting the extent of the problem. According to the Divison of Water Quality’s December 2010 “French Broad River Basinwide Water Quality Plan,” 25 percent of the monitoring sites exceeded the safe levels established by the state. But the deeper concern is that more than 70 percent of streams in the watershed aren’t even monitored.

Although there’s been significant improvement as sewer lines have been patched and replaced, straight-piping to the river has been reduced, and fencing has helped keep livestock out of streams, bacterial pollution is still a threat, and current monitoring efforts are insufficient to provide the information we need to protect ourselves and our waterways.

For this reason, the Western North Carolina Alliance and the French Broad Riverkeeper, with funding from Patagonia, have launched the "Get the Poop Out" campaign. This comprehensive effort aims to reduce bacterial pollution in our streams via a three-pronged approach: conducting water-quality monitoring, identifying and trying to eliminate any pollution sources we find, and working with the state on improving stream classification to better protect human health.

The first step involves volunteers taking samples from streams that are frequently used for swimming; we then analyze them to determine the amount of bacterial pollution. The goal isn’t simply pinpointing pollution hot spots but actually cleaning them up. It is clearly illegal to discharge sewage at levels that will contaminate a stream, and we intend to identify the sources of the problems we find and then work with all parties concerned to eliminate the pollution.

The first three rounds of sampling occurred on the Swannanoa River and its tributaries in December and January, when several volunteers braved the cold to take more than 100 samples between Black Mountain and the French Broad River. Most of these samples were free of E. coli, but several showed low levels and a few had very high levels. The source of one of those high readings has been identified, and we’re working to eliminate it while continuing the sampling to detect other pollution sources.

Meanwhile, we’re also working with the Division of Water Quality to improve stream classification. Many streams used for swimming and other recreational purposes aren’t currently managed for those types of activity. This project will work to upgrade the state’s classification system to truly meet the Clean Water Act’s stated goal: to have all waters fishable and swimmable.

But it all starts with our dedicated volunteers, and we invite you to help us achieve this key objective (see box).

— French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson works for the Western North Carolina Alliance, a grass-roots group promoting livable communities and environmental protection.

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