Testing conducted by local conservation organization MountainTrue has confirmed that cattle and faulty or inadequate sewer, septic or water treatment infrastructure are the major sources of E. coli pollution in the French Broad River.
MountainTrue’s French Broad Riverkeeper conducts regular water quality monitoring of rivers and streams throughout the French Broad River Basin, including weekly testing of more than 30 recreation areas from May to September. After decades of slow but consistent improvement to the basin’s water quality, the organization has documented a sharp decline in water quality.
“The difference over that past few years has been disturbing,” explains French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “Take Pearson Bridge in Asheville’s River Arts District: That site passed the EPA’s safe threshold for swimming 81% of the time in 2016. Just four years later, that site failed 81% of the time in 2020. Or Mud Creek in Henderson County, that site passed 52% of the time in 2018, and now it fails 93% of our tests.”
MountainTrue’s standard E. coli testing program measures the E. coli in the river. Levels in the French Broad have been high and rising year-over-year, but the nonprofit couldn’t say for certain what the sources of the pollution were. Determining the major sources of E. coli required more expensive testing to look at the presence of DNA in the river.
“Testing DNA in polluted water is pretty state-of-the-art and it isn’t cheap,” explains Hartwell Carson. “We needed help paying for it, so we approached Senator Chuck Edwards for help.” North Carolina Senator Edwards, whose district includes Henderson and parts of Buncombe County, helped secure state funding to pay for sampling and lab costs. With that funding, MountainTrue looked at the DNA found in 55 water samples to look for genetic fingerprints of E. coli from people, cows, dogs, poultry, sheep and swine.
“Our rivers are very important to our quality of life and our economy,” explains Senator Edwards. “This project is helping us better understand the causes of bacteria pollution in the French Broad River. We need that information to develop solutions that will keep the river clean.”
Of the 55 samples, 44 revealed DNA from cows. Human DNA was the second most prevalent. The results vary, but at nearly every site the primary sources of pollution were cattle followed by human. Dog DNA also showed up as a moderate contributor to E. coli pollution at a few sample sites.
“The French Broad has some clean and clear streams that run through protected public lands, but we’re seeing more and more problem sites that consistently fail the EPA’s safe water standard for E. coli,” says Hartwell Carson. “Until now, we’ve only had educated guesses about where the E. coli was coming from. With this testing, we have the data we need to make more informed decisions about how to clean up our rivers.”
MountainTrue is presenting the results…