French Broad Riverkeeper Calls on City of Asheville to Establish Stormwater Task Force

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Following recent weeks of poor water quality results, MountainTrue’s French Broad Riverkeeper is calling on the City of Asheville to establish a Stormwater Task Force and to do its part to clean up the French Broad River.

MountainTrue’s French Broad Riverkeeper and volunteers conduct weekly bacteria sampling along the French Broad River throughout the spring, summer and fall. In 2019, this program made headlines as more than half of the sites (53%) failed to meet the EPA’s E. coli standard for safe recreation. This year the results have been even worse, with 69% failing.

Monitoring results for the week of August 6 followed that trend: of the 34 sites that were tested, only 4 passed. “Unfortunately, this week’s results are once again abysmal, with 88% percent of the sites we monitor failing to meet EPA’s safe standard for E. coli,” says Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper. “Half of those not only failed, but exceeded the safe standard by almost five times.” None of the sites within Asheville city limits passed and the Hominy Creek Greenway’s results topping out at over 70,000 colony forming units (CFUs) or 300 times the EPA standard.

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Testing results have been significantly worse this year than in 2019. Comparing the 11 most recent weeks of sampling to the same weeks in 2019, seven out of eleven weeks in 2020 are worse. The week of May 20 of this year was the worst week of sampling in more than seven years of data collection by MountainTrue.

“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. This results in more runoff, which washes pollutants into our streams, and can overwhelm sewer and stormwater infrastructure ,” explains Hartwell Carson. “The French Broad River is an important public resource and really important to our community and our economy, so we need local governments to take action.”

Henderson County has committed to establishing a Stormwater Task Force. The French Broad Riverkeeper is asking the public to call on members of Asheville City Council to follow suit through an action posted on ILoveRiver.org. “We’ve advocated with council and staff for several years about the need for a task force, but the answer so far has been no”, explains Carson. “This problem isn’t going to go away if we ignore it. It isn’t going to fix itself.”

E. coli bacteria makes its way into our rivers and streams in three ways: it enters streams through agricultural runoff, it comes in from leaking sewer or septic infrastructure, and lastly, there is legacy bacteria that gets churned up during rain events. In general, waterways that are located in more remote areas or near protected public lands that lack heavy agricultural practices, developmental or industrial pollution sources are the cleanest and will be less affected by stormwater runoff. Areas closer to development and polluting agricultural practices are much more heavily impacted.

While many of the worst sites are outside the City of Asheville, there isn’t a single site in the City that has average sample results that pass EPA’s safe limit. The highest levels of E. coli in the entire French Broad River Basin have been recorded at Nasty Branch, which drains from half of downtown Asheville and flows through the historically African American Southside neighborhood before discharging into the French Broad River in the River Arts District.

”This isn’t just an issue of public health, it’s also an issue of adapting to climate change and addressing racial equity, which the City has named as top priorities,” says Carson. “And while the City can’t fix problems along the entire river, it must do its part. It has both a legal and moral obligation here.”

The top 10 worst sites for 2020 are:

  1. Nasty Branch in Asheville’s Southside Neighborhood*
  2. Hominy Creek Greenway*
  3. French Broad River at Hwy 191
  4. Mud Creek at Brookside Camp Road
  5. Hominy Creek atBuncombe Sports Park
  6. Cane Creek at Fletcher Park
  7. French Broad River at Hominy Creek*
  8. French Broad River at River Arts District*
  9. French Broad River at Horseshoe
  10. French Broad River at Pisgah Forest

* – sites located in Asheville.

The City of Asheville falls under a stormwater permit from the EPA that requires it to control and improve its stormwater runoff. One of the requirements of this permit is to evaluate best management practices to reduce polluted runoff and, if the current measures are not working, the City is required to expand or improve those practices.

For these reasons MountainTrue is asking the public to support its work and has developed a campaign called ILoveRivers.org to push for policies and investments that will help clean up the French Broad River and other rivers throughout Western North Carolina. One of the actions listed is to email the Asheville City Council and Asheville City Council candidates and ask for action on this issue.

“The Clean Water Act was adopted almost 50 years ago, and the French Broad does not yet meet the act’s goal of being fishable and swimmable. It is past time that we take this next step to clean up the French Broad,” Carson laments.

While there is more than enough bad news to go around about the French Broad River, it isn’t all bad news. The French Broad Riverkeeper has been able to find and eliminate several leaking sewer pipes and failing septic systems this spring and summer. There are also several sites that routinely pass and are great places to cool off on a hot summer day.

The best sites for 2020 are:

  1. Pigeon River at Walters Dam (whitewater put in)
  2. Little River at Hooker Falls
  3. Flat Creek in Montreat
  4. Pigeon River in Harford, TN
  5. Pigeon River below Harford, TN
  6. Pigeon River in Waynesville
  7. French Broad River in Hot Springs
  8. French Broad River in Rosman

MountainTrue’s Swim Guide monitoring samples are collected on Wednesdays, processed using the Idexx system, incubated for 18-24 hours, and results are analyzed and posted on Thursday afternoons. Results are available on the Swim Guide website or on the smartphone app, available for Android and Apple phones.