Runoff and other pollution can make WNC rivers and streams unsafe for the thousands of adults and children who swim, tube, paddle, and play in them every year. Contaminated water poses health problems, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. If infected, children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems can suffer from even more severe illness. According to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, “water-borne illnesses of the greatest public health significance are those transmitted in recreational water, drinking water, and floodwaters” in North Carolina.
In 2015, more than 55,000 people used a commercial outfitter to enjoy the French Broad, with most people floating the river in inner tubes. Canoes and kayaks were also popular rentals, and thousands more used the river without an outfitter. Other WNC rivers experience similar levels of recreational use.
Water quality testing in the heavily-used French Broad River watershed indicates the presence of E. coli and fecal coliform at levels that are unsafe for human exposure much of the time. One of the most popular areas for recreation, a 19-mile section of the French Broad River – from the Asheville Regional Airport, through the Biltmore Estate and the River Arts District in downtown Asheville – was added to NC’s list of impaired waterways in 2022 for fecal coliform bacteria contamination.
Beyond bacteria pollution from human and livestock sources, other issues include sedimentation from construction and agricultural runoff, nutrient loading, industrial and chemical discharges, road salt contamination, plastic pollution, and litter. Stormwater drives many of the water quality impacts we see, and climate change is increasing total annual rainfall in more frequent and intense rain events across our region. While laws protecting water resources need to be implemented and improved in some areas, enforcement of existing regulations needs to be enhanced in others.
To protect public health, stream habitat, and the jobs and businesses that rely on safe and clean water, MountainTrue supports the following policies:
Bacteria & Nutrients
Increase local WNC funding to help farmers improve water quality.
Agricultural waste is a significant source of bacteria and nutrient pollution in WNC rivers and streams, especially the French Broad River, which, as mentioned above, was recently listed as impaired for fecal coliform. Unfortunately, demand for state funding to help WNC farmers afford improvements that would reduce this pollution far outstrips the currently available funding. Expanding state funding for local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) to meet this demand is critical to improving recreational water quality in WNC. Because of the severity of the bacteria impact to the French Broad watershed in particular; data showing cattle as a primary source of harmful bacteria pollution; the availability of conservation BMPs, including livestock exclusion, alternate water source, and pasture management as proven tools to improve water quality and farm efficiency; and the strong demand from farmers to implement BMPs, we are advocating for a $2 million allocation to SWCDs in the French Broad Watershed, allocated through the existing Agricultural Cost-Share Program, specifically for livestock operation improvement projects. This will dramatically increase the number of BMPs that the Districts can implement to support local farmers at little or no cost to them.
Regulate industrial poultry operations appropriately.
In the Broad River watershed, industrialized poultry growing operations are prevalent and have expanded significantly in recent years. However, these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are “deemed permitted” by regulation and are generally able to be constructed and operated without scrutiny from the public, local governments, or environmental regulatory agencies. They also generate a tremendous amount of waste contributing to bacteria and nutrient pollution in local waterways when it is stored where it is exposed to the weather and land applied to crop fields in amounts that far exceed what can be absorbed. Poultry CAFOs should be regulated under a permit system the same way as other CAFOs to provide regulatory oversight and transparency in the amount of waste generated and how and where it is disposed.
Increase septic system repair funding.
Failing septic systems are a major source of bacteria pollution and other pathogens in our waterways. But fixing and maintaining a properly functioning septic system can be prohibitively expensive. MountainTrue has partnered with the North Carolina 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. At least one local government, Buncombe County, has set aside additional funding for local residents to repair failing systems. We support expanding these funding opportunities on the local and state levels to support more property owners in need and protect water quality.
Increase enforcement of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) & infrastructure funding.
When municipal sewer systems are inundated with stormwater or do not have the capacity to handle the amount of waste generated, they overflow and run into nearby waterways, causing tremendous spikes in bacteria and nutrient levels. MountainTrue has worked with NCDEQ to improve the way SSOs are tracked and reported to the public, so people know when their local waterways are impacted. We also support more diligent enforcement when these overflows occur, including increased fines as a deterrent, as well as increased funding for infrastructure and municipal sewer upgrades.
Adopt a State Water Quality Standard for E. coli bacteria.
The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) should adopt an enforceable water quality standard for E. coli bacteria in all freshwater rivers and streams. As opposed to the current standard based on Fecal Coliform, E. coli is the better standard for measuring the threat of bacteria to human health and has been recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 1986. North Carolina is just one of seven states in the nation that still use the outdated Fecal Coliform standard. An early proposal by NCDEQ would only apply the E. coli standard to Class B waters, but most of our mountain streams are Class C waters, like the Broad River, for example, and these waters would be left unprotected. The standard should apply to Class B and C waters, just like the Fecal Coliform standard does.
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. Providing WNC SWCDs with $500,000 for the CCAP program will significantly reduce stormwater pollution in rivers and streams already impacted by bacterial pollution.
Invest in infrastructure improvements to accommodate increasing stormwater.
Climate change is driving increased total annual rainfall in more frequent and intense rain events across WNC. Municipal stormwater systems need to be upgraded to account for more water and 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.
Improve stormwater and development regulations and enforcement.
Construction and development are significant contributors to stormwater runoff and sedimentation in local waterways. Standards for Sediment and Erosion Control Plans should be revised to account for larger amounts of rainfall, and those rules should be expanded to apply to more construction activities. Development on steep slopes — where it is much more challenging to control stormwater runoff and many of the worst issues, including landslides, occur — should be restricted by local land use controls. Stormwater control and discharge violations should be strictly enforced, and fines levied as a deterrent. MountainTrue recently lobbied successfully to change the law and make it easier for enforcement agencies to issue stop-work orders, and these should be used to immediately address water quality impacts before construction is allowed to continue.
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 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.
Impose Technology-Based Effluent Limitations (TBELs) in Industrial Wastewater Discharge Permits.
NCDEQ routinely disregards setting TBELs in wastewater permits in favor of Water Quality-Based Effluent Limitations (WQBELs). Aside from violating State and Federal law, this practice shirks the State’s responsibility to achieve the elimination of pollutants in wastewater discharges, which is a primary goal of the Clean Water Act. In fact, it’s in the name of the permitting program itself, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). WQBELs don’t function to reduce pollution over time; they just consider the receiving water and its designated use without considering the cumulative effects of multiple discharges when setting a pollution limit. TBELs, on the other hand, look at the best treatment technology available to the industry, which reason dictates should improve over time, to set lower limits as technology improves, ultimately achieving the complete removal of pollutants from a discharge stream. It is NCDEQ’s responsibility, required by the law, to impose TBELs in discharge permits.
Adopt limits for forever chemicals.
Emerging contaminants, forever chemicals, perfluorinated compounds, PFAS, PFOA, or GenX — they go by many names, but they are all harmful to people, and they are generally unregulated. These are the byproducts of chemical processes used to produce Teflon, Gore-Tex, and other nonstick and waterproof materials. They do not break down in the environment, evade routine treatment in drinking water, and cause cancer in humans when ingested. The State needs to set strict limits for if, when, and at what level these toxic chemicals may be released into waterways. TBELs will be a necessary permitting tool for getting a handle on the issue (see above).
Stop plastic pollution and litter.
We've all seen it littered on the side of the road, blowing in the wind, and floating down rivers and streams. Plastic pollution is a global problem, but we all have to be part of the solution. Some places have started implementing their own rules on plastic — eight states have implemented their own single-use plastic bans, along with 345 municipalities across the nation. Municipalities, and ideally the State, should pass ordinances and laws to ban single-use plastic and mitigate plastic pollution in Western North Carolina by addressing the single-use plastic problem at its source.
Remove antiquated dams.
The North Carolina General Assembly previously allocated $7.5 million to remove antiquated dams on waterways across WNC. MountainTrue is committed to advancing policies that give state agencies the support they need to advance dam removal projects efficiently, the staffing needed to administer the fund, and additional recurring funding to support in-stream barrier removal projects across the state.
Limit the use of road salt.
Road salt is used as a safety mechanism during winter to prevent ice from forming on roads, thereby keeping motorists safe. However, it is too often overused. As snow and ice melt on roads, the salt washes into soil, lakes, and streams, in some cases contaminating drinking water reservoirs and wells. It has killed or endangered wildlife in freshwater ecosystems, with high chloride levels toxic to fish, bugs, and amphibians. NCDOT and local governments should limit the amount of salt applied to roads to the greatest extent possible.
Meet agency staffing needs and pay equity.
State agencies are struggling to hire and retain staff due largely to budget constraints and competition with the private sector for experienced professionals. MountainTrue supports maximizing investments in staff positions and salaries for key agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality, Wildlife Resources Commission, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and others tasked with protecting human health and the environment. These investments are necessary to give these agencies the personnel they need to serve the residents of North Carolina and to support a salary structure that is competitive and fair for the professionals that devote their careers to service.
Increase public access to trout waters.
According to a 2017 report, trout fishing is a $383.3 million industry in NC, but public access to trout waters currently lags behind demand, leaving many areas over-crowded, over-fished, and frankly loved to death. MountainTrue proposes a new fund be established in the amount of $1 million nonrecurring to be used as matching funds for public access projects on WNC’s trout waters.