Environmental Integrity

The State of Our Rivers - Part Four

MountainTrue's 2023 Report

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SUBJECT: State of Our Rivers

AUTHORS: MountainTrue staff

SOURCE: MountainTrue Vistas, the quarterly newsletter of MountainTrue, Spring 2023, pages 1, 3-6

PERMISSION TO PUBLISH: Granted by MountainTrue

Founded by a handful of western North Carolina citizens in 1982 to preserve a critical wilderness reservoir for Asheville and to further protect the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, MountainTrue has grown into one of the most effective regional environmental organizations in the country.

One of MountainTrue’s essential missions is to protect and restore the waterways of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains as healthy aquatic ecosystems that are great places to swim, paddle, and play. MountainTrue is home of the Broad Riverkeeper, French Broad Riverkeeper, Green Riverkeeper, Watauga Riverkeeper, and a Western Clean Water Teamthe primary guardians of their respective river basins. MountainTrue’s staff, members, and volunteers help maintain the health of these waterways by monitoring pollution and cleaning up rivers and streams.

MountainTrue’s 2023 State of Our Rivers Report sheds a bright light on positives, negatives, and possible policy initiatives related to more than a dozen regional rivers.


Newly Released Report Highlights Challenges to Our Region’s Watersheds

MountainTrue’s State of Our Rivers report combines a year’s worth of data collected by its staff and volunteers with other publicly available datasets to provide readers with a deeper understanding of the health of our rivers, lakes, and streams.

The State of Our Rivers provides two sets of analyses for each watershed. The first [see "The State of Our Rivers - Part One"] is our Swim Guide E. Coli Bacteria Analysis, which utilizes samples collected from popular recreation sites throughout our mountain region from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends. Throughout these 15 weeks in 2022, MountainTrue staff and volunteers collected and analyzed 1,167 samples from 90 locations. The second [see "The State of Our Rivers - Part Two"] is our Stream Health Analysis, combines data from multiple sources to gauge how well a stream or river supports aquatic life.

The following are key takeaways from the 2023 State of Our Rivers report:

Community health and economic risks require policy interventions.

State and local governments have rightfully invested significant resources into our region’s tourism and outdoor recreation economy. Our rivers, lakes, and streams are valuable public resources that provide recreation and fishing opportunities for residents and draw visitors from around the world. To protect these investments and the livelihoods of business owners, workers, and residents, lawmakers should:

Increase funding to help farmers improve water quality.

MountainTrue supports expanding state funding for local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) to meet the current demand from farmers who want to make improvements to reduce water pollution. Due to the severity of the bacteria pollution in the French Broad Watershed and data showing cattle as a primary source, at least $2 million should specifically be allocated to SWCDs in theFrench Broad through the existing Agricultural Cost-Share Program for livestock operation improvement projects.

Regulate industrial poultry operations appropriately.

Industrialized poultry growing operations are prevalent in the Broad River Watershed and have expanded significantly in recent years. These Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are “deemed permitted” by law and can be constructed and operated without scrutiny from the public, localgovernments, or environmental regulatory agencies. Because poultry CAFOs generate a tremendous amount of waste and contribute to bacteria and nutrient pollution in local waterways, they should be regulated under a permit system like other CAFOs to provide regulatory oversight and transparency.

Increase Funding for Septic System Repairs.

Fixing and maintaining a properly functioning septic system can be prohibitively expensive. MountainTrue has partnered with the NC Department of Health and Human Services to provide grants to repair failing septic systems to property owners with financial hardship in priority watersheds impacted by bacteria pollution. We support expanding these funding opportunities on the local and state levels to assist more property owners in need and protect water quality.

Heighten enforcement and funding to prevent Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)

When municipal sewer systems are inundated with stormwater or do not have the capacity to handle the amount of waste generated, they overflow into nearby waterways, causing spikes in bacteria and nutrient levels. MountainTrue has worked with the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to improve how SSOs are tracked and reported to the public. We also support more diligent enforcement and funding for infrastructure and municipal sewer upgrades.

Help property owners reduce stormwater pollution.

The Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP) allows WNC’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) to help property owners reduce stormwater pollution in impaired waters. Like the cost-share program for farmers, funding for CCAP assistance is insufficient to meet demand. A good start would be toprovide WNC SWCDs with $500,000 for the CCAP program to significantly reduce stormwater pollution in rivers and streams already impacted by bacterial pollution.

Invest in infrastructure improvements to accommodate increasing stormwater.

Climate change is causing more frequent and intense rain events. Municipal stormwater systems need to be upgraded to account for more water. These systems should incorporate more green infrastructure to promote infiltration to groundwater aquifers instead of direct conveyances to surface waters, which can increase stream volume and velocity, exacerbating flooding and bank erosion. We support maximizing investment in infrastructure upgrades to accommodate increasing amounts of stormwater.

Enact policies and programs to require and incentivize the protection of riparian buffers.

Maintaining a vegetated riparian buffer is one of the best ways to protect water quality. In North Carolina, there are required construction setbacks in some instances, but no requirements to maintain vegetated buffers. That allows for shallow-root grasses on manicured lawns or plowed fields all the way up to stream banks, resulting in erosion, bank failure, and excess sediment pollution of streams. By contrast, Georgia has more robust statewide stream buffer regulations. North Carolina should follow suit.

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