State of Our Watauga, Elk, and New River Watersheds

Watauga River Rec

About the Watauga, Elk, and New River Watersheds

The Watauga River Watershed originates on the northern slopes of Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, at an elevation of 5,964 feet. The Watauga River Basin includes the headwaters and tributaries of the Elk and Watauga Rivers, flowing northwest from North Carolina into Tennessee's Holston and Tennessee Rivers before joining the Mississippi River and draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Grandfather Mountain is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in eastern North America, with several rare and endangered animal and plant species.

The Watauga River Watershed includes mountain bog wetlands that sit at the head of the basin and serve as an important water purification system and habitat for native wildlife. Nearly 90% of mountain bogs in North Carolina and throughout the Southeastern United States have been destroyed. The rapid elimination of mountain bogs poses a challenge to water quality and environmental conservation in the Watauga River Basin.

Eight aquatic species in the Watauga River Basin are state-listed as endangered or threatened. Among these endangered or threatened species are the green floater, a mussel that lives in smaller, slow-flowing streams; the banded sculpin, a threatened fish. Species of mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly also reside in the basin — these aquatic insects are known as indicator species because they are good indicators of water quality. These aquatic insect species aid in gauging water quality and ecosystem health due to their distinct tolerances to pollution and stream disturbance.

Increases in development, plastic pollution, soil erosion, sedimentation, and excess nutrients are stressors on aquatic health and habitats. When combined, these stressors can significantly damage aquatic habitats and ecosystems. Much of the land disturbance in the basin takes place on steep mountain slopes, which are naturally vulnerable to soil erosion. As land is cleared due to urbanization and agriculture, rain and melting snow carry eroded sediments, pesticides, fertilizers, and road salt into the Watauga River.

North Carolina has designated 18 miles along Boone’s Fork Creek for conservation to receive extra protection. More than half of the basin’s streams are classified as trout waters, which means additional treatment is required at local wastewater treatment plants. In addition, 25-foot buffers of shrubs and trees must be maintained between trout streams and graded construction sites to filter runoff and prevent erosion.

The Watauga also offers plenty of sustainable recreational activities, including canoeing and kayaking, whitewater rafting and paddling along the Watauga River Gorge, and fishing for native brook trout, smallmouth bass, and introduced rainbow and brown trout. Parts of the basin run through the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, allowing for accessible recreational access points for visitors who want to experience the beautifully biodiverse Watauga River.

Swim Guide E. Coli Bacteria Analysis

The bacteria levels in the High Country varied on a site-by-site basis. The New River Watershed had slightly higher average E. coli levels (234.9 MPN/100mL) across all samples than the Watauga River (217.8 MPN/100mL). The cleanest sites in the High Country Region were Wildcat Lake, Watauga Point Recreational Area, and Price Lake. The sites with the highest average E. coli levels were Lover’s Lane, Elk River at Hickory Nut Gap Bridge, and Elk River Falls. 

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On the Watauga River, two tailwater sites failed regularly and are represented in red — Blevins Rd. Boat Ramp and Lover’s Lane. Lover's Lane had an average E. coli of 718.2 MPN/100mL over the 2022 season, likely related to leaking septic systems, failing wastewater infrastructure, and impervious surface runoff.

The E. coli levels at Blevins Rd. Boat Ramp were slightly lower downstream from Lover’s Lane at 475.7 MPN/100mL. Another site located on the tailwaters is Hunter’s Bridge, a popular river access recommended for secondary recreation only due to elevated average E. coli levels of 399.5 MPN/100mL. Closer to the Watauga headwaters, two sites in yellow are recommended for secondary recreation only, Beech Creek and Calloway Road Bridge. The Calloway Road Bridge site is impacted by a private wastewater treatment plant that has received several fines for impacting water quality on the Watauga River. The Beech Creek site is likely impacted by a combination of leaking septic and agriculture. 

Total Samples Collected: 296
Average E. coli across all sites 246.2 MPN/100 mL
26% of sites sampled failed to meet EPA recreational standards

Elk River:
375 MPN/100 mL across 42 samples
New River: 234.9 MPN/100 mL across 106 samples
Watauga River: 217.8 MPN/100 mL across 148 samples

Cleanest Swim Guide Sites (Average E. coli):

  • Wildcat Lake - 8.3 MPN/100 mL
  • Watauga Point Rec. Area- 31.7 MPN/100 mL
  • Price Lake - 33.3 MPN/100 mL

Dirtiest Swim Guide Sites (Average E. coli):

  • Lover's Lane on Watauga River - 718.2 MPN/100 mL
  • Hickory Nut Gap Bridge on Elk River - 638.9 MPN/100 mL
  • Elk River Falls - 477.9 MPN/100 mL

On the Elk River, a tributary of the Watauga River, two sites regularly failed with average E. coli levels above the safety threshold for both primary and secondary recreation, Elk River Falls (477.9 MPN/100mL) and Hickory Nut Gap (638.9 MPN/100mL). The Elk River at Hickory Nut Gap is also known as the Mill Pond, near the Lees McRae campus. This site is near the Banner Elk Wastewater Treatment plant outflow and is also occupied by many geese and ducks — leading to an increased concentration of fecal matter at the site. Elk River Falls is likely impacted by a combination of small-scale agriculture, runoff, and septic leaks, but a direct cause has not been determined. 

On the South Fork of the New River, two sites failed with average E. coli above recreational standards, Boone Greenway at the Covered Bridge (431.3 MPN/100mL) and New River State Park at the 221 Access (427.7 MPN/100mL). At the Boone Greenway, elevated E. coli levels are likely due to runoff from the impervious surfaces of Boone, leaking infrastructure, and an excessive amount of dog feces left along the river at this public access. The 221 Access is likely elevated due to a combination of agriculture and stormwater runoff, but the direct cause is unknown. Represented by a yellow icon, Brookshire Park had an average E. coli level of 261.7 MPN/100mL for the 2022 season. Brookshire Park is downstream from the Boone Greenway site and was slightly above the EPA’s threshold of 235 MPN/100mL for primary recreation. 

All sites in the New, Watauga, and Elk watersheds showed significant spikes in E. coli during and after rain events. 

Stream Health Analysis

Both the Watauga and Elk Rivers were given an overall B Health Grade. This suggests most sites have good water that generally meets the needs for aquatic life and stream health.

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How We Grade

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 aquatic 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.

Read about our methodologies.

Stream Health Results by Tributary

Of the four sites across the Watauga River Basin, the healthiest grade was the Elk Tributary at a 90 or Excellent (A) when only including sites that are tributaries of the Elk River. All other sites received a grade of Good (B), and are, in descending order of stream health: the Watauga Tributary, Mainstem Watauga, and Mainstem Elk.

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