Environmental Integrity

The State of Our Rivers - Part Two

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 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, 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:

Stream Health is generally Good, with the GreenRiver enjoying Excellent Stream Health.

For our Steam Health Analysis, we looked at a broad setof environmental factors to gauge impacts from fertilizer, pesticides, sediment pollution, and road salts. This allows us to measure the health of aquatic habitats and how hospitable a body of water is for supporting a diversity of aquatic species.

We scored stream health on a scale of 0-100 and gave streams the following grades:

A (90-100) - Excellent

Streams with excellent water quality, low pollution levels, and healthy aquatic insect and fish populations.

B (80-89) - Good

Streams with good water quality but some impacts from pollution or development. Aquatic life and fish populations were relatively healthy.

C (70-79) - Good-Fair

Streams with average water quality. There are some concerns about pollution inputs and development impacts. Generally, aquatic life and fish populations were healthy but could become negatively impacted in the future.

D (60-69) - Fair

Streams with below-average water quality. Pollution is a concern, and acquatic life and fish populations were not as healthy as they should be.

F (<60) - Poor

Streams with poor water quality. Pollution levels were often high, and aquatic life and fish populations were impacted.

Within each watershed, we saw some variability. Every watershed had at least one site with Excellent (A)steam health, but overall, we found that waters throughout our region were in the range of Good (B) to Good-Fair (C).

The Green River Watersheds had the best overall stream health in our region, with the highest percentage of rivers and streams with Excellent (A)grades. The only water body in our mountain region to receive a Poor (F) grade was, unsurprisingly, in the French Broad Watershed. That site, Newfound Creek, is heavily impacted by long-term agricultural activities. However, the French Broad River Basin, overall, had Good (B) stream health with Cataloochee Creek, which flows through Great Smoky Mountain National Park into the Pigeon River, having a perfect score of 100.

In the Hiwassee River Basin, Apalachia Lake, Fires Creek, and Hiwassee Lake scored 100; an additional nine stream and river sites earned grades of Excellent (A). Though the Hiwassee River Basin had Good (B) overall stream health, six streams— Butternut Creek, Ivylog Creek, Fodder Creek, Little Brasstown Creek, Mission Branch, and Youngcane Creek — suffered Fair(D) water quality and will require additional monitoring and water quality interventions.

In the Watauga, the cleanest streams were tributaries of the Elk River (a watershed within the Watauga River Basin) with a stream health grade of 90, which put it just on the edge of Excellent (A).The other three waterways all received Good (B) stream health grades.

MountainTrue volunteers use kick nets to collect samples of aquatic macroinvertebrates, which tell you a lot about the health of a river.