Tests indicate water contamination along the French Broad River

Brooke Randle
News staff writer
brandle@unca.edu

It is an unseasonably warm day in late January as a team of volunteers head to the banks and tributaries of the French Broad River. The team, headed by French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, collects water samples in order to monitor the quality of the river.

Carson states a sample taken Jan. 27 behind the former location of the 12 Bones Smokehouse contained 65 times more than the safe limit for E. coli, a bacteria known for causing illness in humans. Carson said while trace amounts of E. coli can be found in the river, the high levels could indicate a sewage leak from a surrounding home or business.

“We’ve checked the sewer lines. We’ve checked businesses. We’ve checked runoff around the area, but we have yet to figure out what the source is,” Carson said. “It’s probably sewage from somewhere, we just don’t know where yet.”

Carson said E. coli and other contaminates are not uncommon at low levels in the river and usually pose little to no health risk to people. However, levels of some contaminants can rise dramatically after heavy rain.

“Normally the problem is stormwater runoff related. When the French Broad River is muddy after a heavy rain, it’s not that uncommon that the bacteria levels are higher than they should be,” Carson said. “When it hasn’t rained in awhile and the river is clear, it is pretty clean. The river is clean most of the time but there definitely are times where it’s not a clean as we’d like it to be.”

While most people who float or swim in the French Broad River do not use the tributary itself, the offshoot does flow into a popular access point located under Haywood Bridge, Carson said. The location is one of the sites monitored through Swim Guide, a resource providing residents with up-to-date information about the quality of the river.

“We have an app and a website and a crew of volunteers that monitor the French Broad weekly from about 20 different locations from May through September,” Carson said. “Those are sort of chosen locations based on how much people use the water for recreation purposes.”

Senior Environmental Specialist Tim Fox, from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said the DEQ also works with the riverkeeper to field problems related to the French Broad River.

“We have really good communication with the riverkeeper. They usually report problems, complaints or concerns and we always try to be proactive,” Fox said. “In this case, there’s just many different things that it could be, so we’re just kind of trying to eliminate them and trying to figure out where it’s coming from.”

Fox said most of the issues surrounding the French Broad River are related to nonpoint source pollution, which includes runoff from parking lots, agriculture, stormwater and residential areas.

“Nonpoint sources are sometimes harder to identify because it’s not just, you know, a pipe,” Fox said. “It’s throughout the whole landscape and it has a cumulative effect. The more people, the more impervious area, the more effect on the watershed.”

Other issues include aging infrastructure and sediment. Fox said North Carolina has many programs in place to combat contamination, including water testing and requiring permits for industrial activity.

“There’s an ambient monitoring system that consists of sampling stations throughout our region, which is 19 counties. This program has been active for 40 years and they collect a variety of things for physical, chemical, bacterial and pathogen samples,” Fox said. “We also have wastewater personnel or industrial stormwater people here at DEQ inspect sites and they check if they’re exceeding their limits and will write a notice of violation.”

According to Fox, 1973’s Clean Water Act, along with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, helped bring much-needed regulation of water quality.

“Most of these programs are spearheaded by regulations by the Clean Water Act. That’s kind of what started these factories and point source industrial activities to be regulated so they couldn’t just dump all of their waste into a water state,” Fox said. “That was a big movement that kind of started the regulations for water quality.”

Fox said although the water quality of the river has improved over the years, work still needs to be done.

“I think it’s been improved but there’s still other issues that we need to address obviously, given the samples and the results that we get,” Fox said.

Eric Bradford, director of operations at Asheville Greenworks, a local environmental nonprofit, said the group works alongside the riverkeeper to help keep the river clean.

“We try to improve the health of the community that most of us spend most of our time in,” Bradford said. “We try to work in your backyard because this is where most of the trash is and where most of the areas are that need the most help.”

Bradford said Asheville Greenworks was formed in 1973 and works with over 3,000 volunteers each year on various assignments related to the French Broad River and the surrounding area.

“It’s a huge amount of work that we do. We run over 200 projects a year, so it’s busy,” Bradford said.

While environmental agencies and nonprofits do the lion’s share of river cleanup, some of the responsibility of keeping the river clean falls upon residents, Bradford said.

“Try to think about your impact on the river that day. If you’re gonna go and enjoy the river, try to think about what it is you’re taking with you,” Bradford said. “Sunglasses and flip-flops fill up the French Broad River.”

Another way residents can help, Bradford said, is to volunteer their time.

“Get involved in your local river. Hop in there, because the people that make the change to it are the people who use it,” Bradford said. “We ran 52 water cleanups last year. We have a huge fleet of boats and we would love for more and more people to get involved with us and come out.”

People who are interested in river cleanup should feel free to reach out to Bradford.

“One thing about it is, don’t wait for me to create an opportunity. You can do it. You can create your own opportunity,” Bradford said. “Say, ‘Hey, me and four persons want to go out, borrow some of your boats and do our own little mini cleanup,’ and we’ll say, ‘Come get the gear.’ We make it just that easy.”

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