Environmental Integrity

The State of Our Rivers - Part Three

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.

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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:

Sources of pollution are not a mystery.

Many of the headwaters of our rivers are in protected forests and public lands. Therefore, our rivers generally are pristine at their sources but become more polluted as they wind through more developed areas. The main culprits of poorwater quality are:

Poor Agricultural Practices

Farmers grow the food that sustains us, and their work is critical to ensuring the future food security of our region. However, poor agricultural management practices can spoil water for downstream neighbors. Inadequate livestock fencing and inadequate riparian buffers contribute to bank erosion and more stormwater runoff that carries bacteria and other pathogens, sediment, pesticides, and nitrogen-rich fertilizers into our waterways.

Overuse of fertilizers can result in the excessive growth of plants, lowering the amount of dissolved oxygen available to aquatic life and ultimately leading to fish kills. Excess nutrients in water bodies also contribute to algal blooms, some ofwhich can release toxins harmful to human and animal health.

Failing Sewer, Wastewater, and Septic Systems

Our region’s stormwater and sewer infrastructure, septic systems, and wastewater treatment plants were built for smaller populations and haven’t been updated in tandem with population growth or increased rainfall due to climate change.

Wastewater treatment plants with inadequate carrying capacity more frequently overflow untreated sewage into area surface waters. Heavier and more frequent rain storms cause stormwater to enter and spill from leaking sewer pipes. And property owners who rely on septic systems can experience failures that contaminate surface waters, groundwater, and nearby wells.

Poorly Managed Development and Sprawl

According to projections by NC’s Office of State Budget and Management and by Georgia’s Office of Planning and Budget, our region’s population will grow by more than 200,000 people, or 15.65%, between 2020 and 2050. How we accommodate our new neighbors will have dramatic effects on water quality.

Historically, local governments have been resistant to land-use planning, which has led to sprawl — the process in which the spread of development outpaces population growth. This low-density development devours our open spaces, farmlands, and forests. It leads to fewer trees, more construction, and more impervious surfaces like parking lots, roads, buildings, and other structures. Stormwater glides off these hard surfaces and poorly managed construction sites, mixing with sediment, nearby litter, and other pollutants before spoiling local waterways.

Our Changing Mountain Climate

Climate change will profoundly affect our region and exacerbate the above mentioned threats. More rain results in more stormwater runoff, flushing pollutants from impervious surfaces and poorly managed farms into our waterways.

Heavier, more frequent storms and flooding will erode poorly constructed gravel roads, cause more landslides, and overwhelm faulty septic systems and already inadequate municipal wastewater and sewer systems.

Hotter weather creates a more hospitable environment for invasive plant and animal species, making protecting our natural heritage and economy more difficult and costly.

Poor agricultural management practices can spoil water for downstream neighbors.