The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Ancient river, new threats: Water quality officials declare 19 miles of French Broad River in NC impaired by pollutants

Written by Jason Sandford
french broad river jason sandfordRecreational uses of the French Broad River in Asheville, including tubing, kayaking and canoeing, have grown dramatically in recent years. Jason Sandford/Ashevegas Hot Sheet

Booming construction and development, combined with more frequent heavy rains and an aging stormwater system, continue to threaten the age-old Appalachian river

This story was originally published by Jason Sandford of the Ashevegas Hot Sheet.

ASHEVILLE — North Carolina water quality officials declared a 19-mile section of the French Broad River in Buncombe County as officially “impaired” because of fecal coliform levels found during recent testing. It’s a sobering alarm bell (though there have been plenty of warning signs, as you’ll see below.) In Asheville, interest in the river as an economic force and tourist destination has never been higher. (The confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers forms the Tennessee River above Knoxville.)

The designation will come as no surprise to even casual observers of the wide, northward-flowing river. Often, it runs a chocolate brown color, a clear sign of the sediment and other pollutants running through the waterway.

The French Broad’s new grade will trigger action aimed at aiding the river’s quality. Indeed, several people I talked to called it good news, insomuch as it will unlock resources (aka money) for cleanup. It might also serve to bring broader public attention to the work it takes to protect a beautiful old river, work that brought the French Broad back from the brink once before.

Landon Davidson, regional supervisor of the water resources arm of the N.C. Division of Environmental Quality, delivered the news during a special May 12 work session of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, an advisory board that recommends overall policy for the continued development and sustainability of the regional riverfront to city and county government officials. The commission this year is turning its attention to water quality issues, and it heard from three other experts at the gathering, held in the Cloud Room of Wedge Brewing’s Foundation location. Those speakers were:

  • Jay Hawthorne, a member of the French Broad River Partnership steering committee, gave an overview of an economic impact study of the French Broad River watershed commissioned by the partnership. That study was led by economist Steve Ha of Western Carolina University. He reported that the total economic value of the French Broad and its tributaries stood at $3.8 billion per year.

  • Marshall Taylor of the Asheville Storm Water Task Force. The civil engineer discussed the task force’s recommendations to Asheville City Council regarding how the city can improve river water quality through its stormwater ordinance, as well as by fixing aging stormwater infrastructure.

  • Renee Fortner, watershed resources manager for the Asheville environmental nonprofit RiverLink, described its Central Asheville Watershed Restoration Plan. The plan details impairments to three streams in the watershed’s 2 square miles in the heart of Asheville, and outlines steps to address pollution sources. It will cost an estimated $5 to $10 million to make all the improvements it has identified, Fortner said. So far, the group has secured $750,000.

Nuts and bolts of impairment

Davidson, the state official, explained that the Division of Water Resources is required by the federal Clean Water Act to release a list of impaired streams every two years and submit it to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval. That list is known as the 303(d) list, which already includes hundreds of miles of state rivers and streams.

The 19 miles of the French Broad from Long Shoals Road to Craggy Dam is a new addition to the list, Davidson said. Town Branch, also known as Nasty Branch, and Bacoate Branch, two streams in the Central Asheville Watershed (mentioned above), as well as a section of Cane Creek, are also new additions. Hominy Creek and a section of the Swannanoa River are also on the list.

The French Broad’s impairment is due to levels of fecal coliform bacteria higher than state water quality standards found in samples taken along the river within a 30-day period. The bacteria can come from sewage leaks, septic systems and run-off from agricultural fields. (There are other forms of pollution for the French Broad, the most common of which is sediment pollution. That can be caused by runoff at construction sites and agricultural fields, as well as eroding stream banks.)

The water quality standard is based on a waterway’s overall classification - the state defines the best uses to be protected within waters, and sets water quality standards to protect those uses. All waters must meet Class C standards, which address fishing, wading, boating and other uses where human body contact is “infrequent,” according to the rules.

In 2002, the French Broad was moved up to Class B, a class conferred on rivers and streams meant for primary recreational activities that include swimming, skin diving, water skiing and similar uses where body contact with water is considered frequent. (All the impaired streams mentioned above are Class C.) The higher classification brings higher water quality standards.

The 303(d) listing of the French Broad River will bring attention, resources, focus and engagement to the issue of river water quality, Davidson said. Holders of permits issued by the N.C. DEQ could have their permits adjusted to help address water quality, he added.

A recovery, and new warning signs

Author Wilma Dykeman was one of the first river observers to connect economic prosperity to environmental stewardship. Her 1955 book The French Broad described an ancient Appalachian river in severe distress. Decades of dumping untreated sewage and industrial effluent into the waterway had created a dirty, smelly river that Dykeman famously described as “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

But the river rebounded. With the help of the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the efforts of nonprofit groups such as RiverLinkAsheville Greenworks and MountainTrue, as well as countless volunteers, aquatic life returned and river recreation picked up.

Today, beer drinkers gaze down on the river from the deck of New Belgium Brewing’s riverfront taproom and brewery operation (built on a former livestock yard), while tens of thousands of river tubers, kayakers and canoeists glide down the French Broad, numbers that have grown exponentially over the past decade. In the Asheville River Arts District, city officials last year celebrated the end of a multi-million dollar road project that has, in turn, drawn new residential, hotel and business development to the riverfront. Just north of all that activity, the town of Woodfin is building its own new riverside parks and greenways and plans to soon start construction on an engineered structure built in the river to provide whitewater rapids for kayakers and river surfers. The “whitewater wave” is expected to be a significant tourist attraction.

Still, threats persist

A 1,000-gallon fuel spill from above-ground storage tanks at a home heating oil company’s location at the intersection of Lyman Street and Riverside Drive in 2018 caused the river to be closed to people and pets. It was called one of the river’s most egregious hazardous waste spills in years, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

In 2020, French Broad Riverkeeper Harwell Carson reported that water quality testing was significantly worse than the prior year. Under the riverkeeper program of the nonprofit MountainTrue, Carson and a team of volunteers conduct weekly water sampling along the French Broad River and test for bacteria. “We are moving in the wrong direction on water quality for the French Broad River Watershed, and things will likely only get worse with climate change causing heavier and more frequent storms,” Carson said in an August 2020 press release.

Carson, who publishes an annual “State of Our Rivers” report, noted “a general decline” in the waters of the French Broad Watershed in his 2021 report. It cited two primary factors: increased growth and development; and more frequent heavy rains that cause more stormwater runoff from urban areas, more sewer overflows and increased waterway sediment.

The most dramatic water quality decline was found in Transylvania County, a troubling finding because the county is home to the headwaters of the French Broad.

“We’re at a critical point in the history of the French Broad,” the report states, “and now is the time to comprehensively address the challenges we face.”

 

Please consider volunteering with MountainTrue.

The Environmental Quality Institute is also looking for volunteers for its acclaimed Stream Monitoring Information Exchange and Volunteer Water Information Network.

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