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Direct pollution into the French Broad River may be most likely to catch the eye of regulators, but sedimentation and pollutant-carrying stormwater runoff pose the biggest threats to the waterway, according to local environmental advocates and government officials.
Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink, an environmental nonprofit organization based in Asheville, said, “Let’s begin the discussion about sediment in the river, which is the biggest problem for the entire watershed – plain old dirt.”
Large amounts of sediment act as direct threats to ecologies by burying fish eggs and other aquatic habitats, making it difficult for the native trout and other fish to survive. The thinning of trees around the banks due to soil erosion also affects the river, baring it to the sun and raising its temperatures, hindering the ability of fish to live.
An extreme event of sedimentation release, such as the 10,000 tons of dirt dumped into the French Broad River near its headwaters in Transylvania County at a debris jam, can cost thousands of dollars for clean-up while stressing the river itself.
Jeff Parker, district director of the Transylvania County Soil & Water District, was the primary source behind finding grants to clean up the logjam. He started work on fixing the problem in 2010.
The culmination of the slow build-up of sediment and trees on the river eventually widened the river from its average 100-feet-width to around 250 feet, substantially making shallow the waters and allowing more debris to catch in the jam.
The two years it took to raise funds and fix the buildup was not surprising, Parker said, but after they completed the work, he said it is now imperative to monitor the river more closely to ensure a similar event doesn’t happen again.
Buffers and best management practices
Rachel Hodge, water quality administrator of Hendersonville’s Environmental & Conservation Organization, described the methods her organization utilizes to repair damaged river banks through the use of riparian buffers or zones.
“It’s kind of like a natural fencing system,” Hodge said. ECO plants woody vegetation, such as button bush and silky dogwood, to reinforce the banks and reduce the amount of soil erosion into the river.
While Parker said the type of sedimentation that created the debris jam is part of the ongoing natural process of trees falling and catching in the river, others pointed to outside sources of sedimentation problems.
Worth McAlister, assistant volunteer coordinator with RiverLink, said industry and construction by the river play a large role in increased sedimentation. RiverLink has worked to educate developers and homeowners on best management practices, or BMPs, when living or working next to the French Broad River, such as using silt fences to catch the runoff before it escapes to the river.
The impacts of stormwater runoff
For Hodge, however, the real problem behind sedimentation issues is stormwater runoff, which can dump into the French Broad River with high velocity and contain large amounts of pollutants. This occurs most often in urban areas with a lot of water-resistant or “impervious” surface, such as paved roads and parking lots.
Susan Massengale, public information officer with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Water Quality in Raleigh, said that after sedimentation, stormwater is the second largest problem when it comes to river water quality.
“That stormwater doesn’t go to a treatment plant,” she said. “It goes to a catchment that you have in the cities, and then goes to a stream or a river or what have you, and that can be an issue.”
The lack of possible pinpointing of where stormwater is polluting the river makes it difficult for officials at NCDENR to regulate it, said Bob Sledge, environmental specialist in the Division of Water Quality in Raleigh.
However, the state has programs that work with farmers near the river to make sure they are not polluting the water excessively, and encourages drivers to make sure their cars are not leaking hazardous materials on roads. Environmental groups also have many volunteer programs that take water quality samples and work to prevent overwhelming sedimentation and stormwater problems from happening.
The role of regulation
Local programs and work happening daily have contributed considerably to the higher water quality of the French Broad River, which serves Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties. But Hartwell Carson of the Western North Carolina Alliance attributed the improvement of the French Broad River to the passing of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.
“It was widely accepted as one of the more successful pieces of environmental legislation ever passed,” he said. “(The bill) led to tremendous revitalization of rivers across the country.”
However, despite the progress from then to now, Carson said, “we’re not really getting better.”
“We’re definitely not meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act everywhere, which is to have all waters be fishable and swimmable,” he said.
The reason the quality of the French Broad River is not improving, Carson said, is because people think there has been sufficient progress and there is no reason to continue working for more. Recent legislation in Congress to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s role in enforcing the Clean Water Act is a main factor for him.
“It’s that kind of stuff (like the Clean Water Act) that are the reasons we move forward, but it doesn’t mean we’ll keep moving forward,” he said. “In fact, we could move backwards.”
“I love the idea of the river kind of transitioning from fighting water quality battles to promoting it as a recreation destination,” Carson said, adding that he thinks that is going to take a lot more work.
Connecting with the river
Karen Cragnolin of RiverLink said recreation is going to be the way to continue to improve the French Broad River.
“Our theory has always been if you get somebody on the river, they’re going to want to protect it,” she said.
RiverLink’s riverside concerts and education programs, the launch of WNCA’s new paddle trail with campsites and other outdoor organizations’ involvement with the river are examples of how various groups are trying to bring more people to the French Broad River and teach them about its importance.
“I don’t think that people around here will stand for a French Broad that is grossly polluted,” Carson said. “But hopefully it doesn’t take it getting worse for people to step up.”
Massengale and Sledge of NCDENR said they are thankful for the work of environmental groups but also see the need of further improvement.
“The mountains have a lot of active groups of people who are working to preserve water quality and land quality,” Massengale said.
But in terms of how to work more with the problems on the French Broad River, Massengale said she is unsure how to proceed: “We’re dealing with the impacts, but we can’t really get our arms around how to prevent them.”
More French Broad River water quality coverage
- The French Broad River is healthier today, but pollution continues.
- A Carolina Public Press analysis of 18 months of data from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Water Quality showed that there were 48 permit violations by 20 different public and private entities in the French Broad River basin.
Read Carolina Public Press’ ongoing special-report coverage of water quality in and around the French Broad River here.