The waters of the Southern Appalachians are worth protecting. Not only are our rivers, streams, and lakes part of one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, they are also economic engines for our communities. According to data compiled by the fine folks at North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, trout anglers spent $239.8 million in North Carolina in 2014. The total economic effect of trout fishing is estimated at $383.3 million, supporting nearly 3,600 jobs.
Unfortunately, we have a sewage problem. Population growth, development, bad agriculture practices, failing or insufficient infrastructure, stormwater runoff, straight piping, and failing septic systems are putting our rivers and many livelihoods throughout our region at risk. Between August and November of last year, 21 million gallons of sewage overflowed into the waterways of North Carolina due to insufficient sewage infrastructure. From the mountains to the coast, North Carolina’s 15 Riverkeepers routinely test across the state for E. coli. And far too often, fishing and swimming holes fail to meet basic water-quality standards for swimming. The results for the French Broad River Watershed are especially alarming. Last year, the French Broad River had the worst water quality since we started testing five years ago. The results are trending for the worst, and now the French Broad has the highest levels of E. coli in the state of North Carolina. Many of our French Broad testing sites fail over 70% of the time with levels of E. coli that are hundreds of times above the safe standard.
This alarming trend isn’t limited to urban rivers like the French Broad. We are seeing declining water quality in the mostly rural Watauga River Basin in western North Carolina’s High Country. The Watauga River is classified as Outstanding Resource Water or High Quality Waters by the Division of Water Resources due to exceptional aquatic health. Healthy forested riparian buffers support old clean water, high-dissolved oxygen, and a healthy benthic community that all help make the Watauga River an incredible trout fishery and destination for anglers from all over the world.
Now, poorly managed development and sewage spills and leaks from old or failing wastewater treatment plants and septic systems have caused spikes in bacteria in many of the Watauga’s normally pristine trout streams. As more bacteria and nutrients make their way into our rivers, our ecosystem is being thrown off balance, and we’re seeing more nutrient loading, habitat loss, and harmful algal blooms. If left unaddressed, this could cause higher water acidity and lower oxygen levels—which can lead to an ecosystem crash. Already, we’ve observed a decline in key populations of benthic macroinvertebrates— water bugs that act as canaries in the coal mine when it comes to river health.
Fifty years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, we still haven’t met the goals for all waterways to be fishable and swimmable. For too long, we have been picking around the edges and it is time for bold solutions. To save our rivers and reverse these worrying trends, MountainTrue and our team of four Riverkeepers has launched the ILoveRivers.org campaign. As part of this campaign, we’re calling on public investment to fix our sewage infrastructure, regulations, and funding to keep animal waste from washing into our rivers, public notifications for sewage spills, and vegetated stream buffers to protect our waterways. We can and must do better, which is why we urge you to visit ILoveRivers.org and take action today.