Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters: Western North Carolina’s growth comes with a price, and our rivers are paying it
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As the first group pulls large rubber rafts onto a grassy knoll from the rapids of the Nolichucky River, a train roars along the opposite bank, drowning out the burbling sound of water. The afternoon rain has stopped momentarily, even though dark thunderclouds still paint the sky with dramatic blues and grays, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s outpost is suddenly populated with wet, smiling paddlers from the group, rummaging through truck beds and car trunks for a change of dry clothes. The expedition, organized by RiverLink, the Asheville-based nonprofit working to conserve and promote sustainable economic and environmental development in the French Broad River watershed, spent most of this summer day navigating a portion of the Nolichucky, which begins in Mitchell County and slides through Cherokee and Pisgah national forests and one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi, before joining the French Broad River in Tennessee. Rain-fed, fast, and colored a glassy hazel, the river seems wild. Surrounded by verdant mountains, the scene has an undeniable, pristine beauty that is familiar to anyone who’s spent time exploring Western North Carolina. As much as this rafting trip is a celebration of Nolichucky and everything it offers, it’s also a water quality investigation, says French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. As he paddled with the team of environmentalists, journalists, and regulators on this educational outreach trip, Carson kept his eyes open for trouble, too, especially for things like dumps or abandoned oil and chemical drums. “The point of all these outreach and monitoring trips is to educate the public about the challenges facing the river,” he says. “So far, we’ve found a really beautiful stretch of river.” Still, advocates and experts say threats to water quality are numerous in Western North Carolina, despite its reputation for clear-running streams and pure drinking water. They say we aren’t immune from water pollution problems more commonly thought to plague urbanized areas. That explains, in part, the hundreds of advocates, environmentalists, regulators, elected officials, and others who have created local and regional organizations focused on protecting and improving water quality across the region. They are, even today, battling things like trash dumping and bacteria and toxic heavy-metal contamination. The most widespread problem? Sediment. And the largest cause of all this mud? People. “The biggest impact, currently, is development,” agrees Greg Jennings, extension specialist and professor of biological and agricultural engineering at N.C. State University. He works on stream-bank restoration projects across North Carolina’s watersheds. “That’s probably the one threat all of Western North Carolina faces related to water.” And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent accounting of Western North Carolina’s impaired waters, the problems seem to be getting worse. In 2006, the agency found that 42 stretches of waterways within the region’s largest watershed, the French Broad River Basin, were impaired (meaning that at least one of the EPA’s tests for harmful materials failed). That number is up nearly 45 percent from 2004. The 2008 report is not yet complete. Even the largely isolated Nolichucky has its problems, Carson says. Most come from the Cane River that feeds the Nolichucky and was the site of a fish kill last year after the wastewater treatment plant in Burnsville failed, releasing untreated sewage into the river. “On the one hand, it’s good we know what the problem is—it’s people,” Jennings continues, “but that doesn’t mean it’s simple to fix.” Pinpointing the problem While nonprofits and volunteers advocate for cleaner water, a lot depends on several local, state, and federal agencies charged with regulating and enforcing it throughout the state, most notably the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the EPA. Their permitting systems, created by the 1972 Clean Water Act, are meant to regulate and maintain certain defined and measurable water quality standards set on a nearly stream-by-stream, river-by-river, and source-by-source basis. Though regulators and others know sediment is the biggest problem, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pinpoint its sources. In regulatory lingo, that type of pollution is called “non-point source,” meaning the exact source can’t be identified. That’s different from “point source” pollution, which comes from a specific, identifiable location or point, such as a wastewater treatment plant or an industrial discharge pipe. It’s difficult for governmental agencies to find the exact subdivision, construction site, or farm field causing “non-point” pollution, though many try, in an indirect way, through regulating storm-water runoff and steep-slope development. The problem with sediment isn’t just aesthetics, even as recent rains have turned waterways into a slurry of what looks like red-tinged chocolate milk. It is a long-term issue, one that creates a bevy of environmental and economic problems. It causes turbidity, or cloudiness, in the water, which blocks out the light needed for thriving aquatic ecosystems, says Marilyn Westphal, coordinator of the Volunteer Water Information Network of the Environmental Quality Institute at UNC Asheville. The institute, which is slated to close in December due to state budget cuts, worked with more than 100 volunteers across 10 Western North Carolina counties to test more than 200 sites once a month for a variety of water quality indicators: sediment, heavy metals, nutrients, and pH, among others. Trout, for example, need very clear, very cold water with high amounts of oxygen, and sedimentation threatens that. It also poses more problems for officials controlling drinking water systems who have to find better ways to maintain clean water. Streams suffering sedimentation can take up to 100 years to return to a natural state, provided they aren’t impacted by other problems during that time, notes Ed Williams, an environmental specialist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality. And with river-based outdoors activities a driver of regional tourism, the potential economic impact of pollution could make a multimillion-dollar dent in the local economy. For example, a study conducted by Western Carolina University and released by the Smoky Mountain Host of N.C. in 2009 found that rafting in the Nantahala River Gorge added nearly $62 million to the economies of eight Western North Carolina counties between 2007 and 2008. Testing done at UNCA backs up that potential threat. “It overshadows everything else,” Westphal says. Somewhat counterintuitively, she adds, improvements often come during times of drought. Between 2005 and 2008, the organization ranked close to 30 percent of the points it monitored as “excellent.” Just six percent ranked “poor,” and those were in Buncombe, Haywood, and Madison counties, which are well populated. But rankings take time to compile, and with all the rain recently, Westphal says she believes future rankings won’t be as good. “Some of the sites are just horrible,” she says. “With all of this sediment we’re getting, it’s going to swing down. When it starts raining again, boy-oh-boy, some of the sedimentation will come back with a vengeance.” We’ve come a long way Still, it’s important to put current problems in perspective, Jennings suggests. “Until the 1950s and 1960s, standard practice was to dump raw sewage into our streams and into our rivers,” he says. “People are not getting diseases from drinking water in this country.” As the economy has changed, manufacturing facilities have also closed, which has, in turn, limited widespread industrial pollution. The companies that remain have faced a public that demands, and is willing to work to achieve, cleaner water, he says. The Pigeon River, downstream from Blue Ridge Paper Products in Canton is just one example of the progress. “Nobody would say they’d rather have the water that was on the Pigeon 20 years ago.” Part of the change can be attributed to the Clean Water Act. “There were a lot of rivers and streams that people wouldn’t even set foot in,” Williams says of the time before the act became law. “There was a lot of industrial waste in the streams, open sewers, mining runoff.” Before the mid-1960s, even the Tuckasegee River was once black and foamy, because a paper company operating near Bryson City dumped “black liquor” into the river, says Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee. Sedimentation problems, Williams adds, no matter how widespread they are now, were worse at the turn of the 20th century. Industrial-era commercial logging dug deep roadways into steep mountainsides as companies cut down millions of trees. When the rain came, so did the mud. “We’re doing a lot better at controlling sedimentation, because a lot of towns and people who are developing have to implement storm-water controls,” Williams says. Counting on people That’s an expensive truism for the people managing Lake Junaluska in Haywood County. They oversee the 200-acre private lake that is fed, primarily, by Richland Creek, Factory Branch and several small springs and bordered by picturesque walking trails and two boat ramps, along with a bevy of buildings that comprise Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “Sediment from development and the natural erosion process has impacted us since the lake was built in 1912,” says Jimmy Carr, executive director of the retreat. “In the last two decades, we’ve seen an increase in sediment because of major development in Haywood County.” To maintain the lake, the center regularly removes mud and sediment. Between 2001 and 2005, they drained it, scraped sediment from the bottom, and trucked it away. In those four years, more than 40 dump trucks hauled 350,000 cubic yards of muck. The project cost more than $1.5 million and included the construction of about three acres of wetlands to help filter runoff. With the support of community leaders and others, water quality at the lake—which is open to the public—is improving, Carr adds. Roger Edwards, regional supervisor for surface water protection in the Asheville regional office of the N.C. Division of Water Quality, says some mountain municipalities have been compelled to manage storm-water runoff by phase two of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program. According to the program’s requirements, counties and areas with the largest populations must acquire permits for runoff, but must also, educate and involve the public on the impacts of storm water and manage post-construction runoff for new development and redevelopment. In Western North Carolina those counties are Buncombe, Burke, Haywood, and Henderson. Communities outside those areas are not federally bound to abide by storm-water program laws, but may choose to do so. “I think our municipalities are becoming more proactive in dealing with storm-water runoff,” says Edwards. “I think it’s because our general population is more concerned and more aware of our environment and how we need to protect it. And they’re electing officials that have the same concerns.” So efforts to protect and preserve water quality often rely on local advocates. That’s a key to making a real difference, Carson agrees: “You’re never going to fix the problem with more regulation. You have to have citizen engagement and education.” More and more people are getting involved, notes Williams. “We have our issues, but I feel like the mountains have a special resource,” he says. “We have a lot more people recreating, fishing, rafting, tubing, and site-seeing here, and people are real passionate about the water quality. They love the water, and they want to protect it, too.”