MountainTrue Releases 2021 Swim Guide Watershed Report for the French Broad River

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In the past year, the French Broad River Watershed experienced a range of highs and lows when it comes to bacteria counts.

MountainTrue will start with the good news, including which water testing sites had the lowest bacteria counts across the watershed. Then, MountainTrue will give you the year’s bad news by spotlighting sites with the highest bacteria counts. The report will conclude with achievable solutions for the future and a call to action so you can continue to help protect the places we share.

Before diving into the water quality summary, let’s review important terminology to help better understand the data that MountainTrue’s Riverkeepers, volunteers, and Clean Waters teams worked so hard to collect, analyze, and report. Cfu, or colony forming unit, is a data metric scientists use to estimate the number of microbes present per 100 milliliters of a singular water sample. Microbes (also known as microorganisms) include bacteria, algae, and fungi. Like most things, some microbes are good for human health and some aren’t. MountainTrue tests for E. coli bacteria because it’s the best indicator for the presence of microbes that pose threats to human health.

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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 235 cfu/100mL is the safe standard for primary recreational waters, where people are most likely to engage in recreational activities involving underwater immersion and potential water ingestion.

Good news headline: French Broad Whitewater Sites Experience Applaudable Improvement in 2021

The French Broad in Madison County was cleaner this summer than in past Swim Guide seasons. Whitewater sections at Stackhouse, Hot Springs, and Big Laurel were some of the best testing sites. These sites routinely passed the EPA’s 235 cfu/100mL safe standard, improving from 2020-2021. Another popular whitewater section — the Pigeon River in Hartford, Tennessee — was clean all summer, with most weeks showing an E. colicount of zero.

Most of the testing sites experienced slight improvement this year compared to 2020’s testing results. This is likely due to less rainfall during the Memorial Day to Labor Day sampling season.

Bad news headline: French Broad Besieged by E. coli as Bacteria Battle Babbles On

The French Broad’s long and sometimes stinky history with E. coli is no secret to watershed locals. MountainTrue’s riverkeepers, volunteers, and Clean Waters Teams kept keen (but not pink!) eyes out for harmful strains of this belligerent bacteria while conducting water quality tests at 40 sites across the French Broad River Watershed.

MountainTrue added two new testing sites along the French Broad in Transylvania County at Lyons Mountain and Island Ford this year. Unfortunately, both sites’ water quality and bacteria count ranked among the worst. The testing site in South Asheville’s Shiloh community secured the worst spot with a season average of 3393 cfu/100mL.

Hominy Creek in West Asheville remains an E. coli haven. Through separate DNA sampling, they’ve been able to identify cow and human waste as the top sources of E. coli in Hominy and Mud Creeks. At the same time, sewer overflows also negatively impact the latter. While Mud Creek at Brookside Camp Road experienced slight improvement from 2020 to 2021, it remains one of the worst sites we sample with an average E. coli count of 1535 cfu/100mL.

The week of July 28 proved to be the summer’s worst. Just 23% of the sites passed the EPA’s safe standard with 1283 cfu/100mL as the average value per site.

Future news headline: Staving off the French Broad’s Bacteria Pollution to Save Water Quality

While there was a slight improvement this year, there’s much work that needs to be done to reduce bacterial pollution in the French Broad River. MountainTrue is advocating for additional funding for County Soil and Water Conservation Districts to help farmers implement additional best management practices, like keeping livestock out of waterways and installing stream buffers to mitigate harmful, bacteria-laden runoff. MountainTrue believes these solutions will significantly improve water quality at Hominy Creek and other agricultural areas, engendering a free-flowing domino effect that will positively impact other French Broad River Watershed sections.

Moving forward, MountainTrue will:

  • Continue to monitor sites of most concern while aiming to pinpoint and eliminate sources of E. coli pollution at the newest testing sites.
  • Leverage connections with city, county, and state officials while further developing valued relationships with community members to combat threats posed to water quality by animal agriculture, faulty wastewater infrastructure, and septic failures.

Want to learn more about the efforts to bring about clean water for all? Check out the ILoveRivers webpage and join MountainTrue’s dedicated community of volunteers to help protect the places we share.

Prepared by MountainTrue.