Environmental Integrity

The State of Our Rivers - Part One

Mountain True'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 Team — the 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 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, 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:

The French Broad River is generally unsafe for swimming and other primary recreation.

Across our region, we saw that our most polluted waterways are those closest to and most impacted by urban development and agriculture. Nowhere is that more true than the French Broad Watershed, which hosts many of our region’s most popular recreation areas. In 2022, the NC Department of Environmental Quality added a 19-mile section of the French Broad River — stretching from Arden to Woodfin through Downtown Asheville — to its list of impaired waterways due to higher levels of bacteria pollution.

Our report shows that the problem is more widespread — nearly the entire lengths of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers regularly tested above the EPA’s safe swimming standard. The EPA measures bacteria pollution in the most probable number (MPN) of E. coli bacteria colony forming units per 100mL of water and has set a limit of 235 MPN/100mL for safe primary recreation — such as swimming, tubing, and other activities where the head is likely to get submerged and ingestion of water is possible.

Testing sites in the Middle French Broad, which flows through Asheville and Marshall, NC, had an average E. coli level of 1922.8 MPN/100mL, or eight times the EPA swimming standard. The Upper French Broad, which passes through Brevard, NC, was only marginally better, with an average E. coli concentration of 607.6MPN/100mL.

The Lower French Broad, which flows through Hot Springs, NC, was the least polluted section of the watershed; however, it still often failed the safe swimming standard and, on average, only passed the more lenient safety standard of 406 MPN/100mL for secondary recreation activities like paddling, where accidental water consumption is less likely.

While other watersheds provide safer recreation opportunities, even our cleanest watersheds are impacted by pollution.

The watersheds in other parts of MountainTrue’s territory were much less impacted by pollution than the French Broad. However, even in our cleanest watersheds, we still saw higher bacteria levels in areas closer to urban areas, development, and farms.

For example, the Hiwassee was the cleanest watershed for the 2022 Swim Guide season, with an average E. coli measurement of 71.1 MPN/100 mL across 105 samples. However, sites on the Valley River regularly failed the EPA safe swimming standard due to failing septic systems and inadequate sewer infrastructure in and around the Town of Andrews, as well as poor pasture management and livestock practices throughout the watershed.

The testing site on the Nottely River at Meeks Park II only passed the EPA swimming standard when the lake was completely full. Most of the time, it only met the standard for secondary recreation activities like paddling. The same goes for the Hiwassee River at Sweetwater Park, which is impacted by cattle operations along Sweetwater Creek that have heavily eroded streambanks and lack livestock fencing and riparian buffers.

We observed the same pattern in the Broad, Green, Elk, New, and Watauga rivers: more remote areas were generally cleanest and passed the EPA safe swimming standard. Rivers and streams closest to urban development and high concentrations of agricultural operations were most likely to fail both standards for swimming and secondary recreation, while those further from town and farms were more likely to pass the EPA standard for secondary recreation.