After the Storm: Water Quality and the French Broad

Thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1970, industrial waste is no longer a major issue for the French Broad River. Today, the greatest threat to water quality here is the large volume of stormwater runoff entering our streams. Despite decades of progress in cleaning up the French Broad’s industrial past, 19 miles of the river were recently listed as impaired for fecal coliform bacteria. In Buncombe County alone, there are over 60 miles of streams that fail to meet EPA water quality standards. The river once hosted dozens of native creatures that can’t survive in degraded waters. These are stark reminders that we cannot take clean water for granted.

Stormwater Runoff: The Greatest Threat to Clean Water

Stormwater is created when rain flows over hard surfaces, picking up pollutants like oil and gas, pesticides, fertilizer, and litter. In our urban areas, polluted runoff is collected in gutters, drains and pipes where it is directed into local streams that flow to the French Broad River. This influx of pollutants degrades water quality, harms aquatic life, and impairs entire ecosystems. Excessive runoff also leads to erosion, sedimentation, and flooding. To safeguard clean water, we need to keep runoff onsite where it can soak into the ground and be filtered naturally.

Beneath the Surface

Stormwater runoff harms aquatic life in streams by introducing pollutants including heavy metals, excess nutrients, and chemicals. Elevated levels of these contaminants disrupt the delicate balance of aquatic ecosystems, leading to reduced water quality and habitat degradation. Excess sediment from soil runoff smothers fish spawning grounds and aquatic vegetation, limiting food sources and shelter. Pollutants like oil and pesticides can directly harm fish, amphibians, and invertebrates, causing population declines. Ultimately, stormwater runoff poses a severe threat to the biodiversity and health of our stream ecosystems, undermining their resilience and long-term viability.

The Mighty Mussel

Efforts to protect clean water have an ally in the mighty freshwater mussel. Cousins of the saltwater clams we eat, freshwater mussels are filter feeders that live on the bottom of healthy streams where they feed on organic matter they filter out of the water. A natural population of mussels has a superpower: the ability to improve and protect water quality. Yet they are sensitive to excessive sediment and certain contaminants. Once abundant in our streams, our native mussel populations were decimated by industrial pollution by the early 20th century. Still, there is hope for a comeback. In 2017, wildlife biologists discovered the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel in the French Broad River near Asheville for the first time in decades. Good stormwater management is critical to ensuring that freshwater mussels can flourish and be our clean water ally once again.

Did You Know?

One freshwater mussel can filter 15 gallons of water a day, removing bacteria and other pollutants as they feed.

Dollars and Sense

Clean water is fundamental. A recent study indicates the French Broad is an economic engine worth some $3.8 billion annually to the region’s economy. Adopting practices that reduce runoff helps control costs associated with upgrades to municipal stormwater infrastructure, flooding, and drinking water treatment.

What Can You Do to Protect Clean Water?

Next time it rains heavily, put on some galoshes and investigate where your roof runoff is heading. Look for opportunities to keep runoff on site where it can soak into the ground. Do the gutters on the roof of your home or business drain to the street or directly into a storm drain? Can you redirect your roof runoff into a rain barrel or rain garden instead? For detailed instructions on how to design and construct these and other types of green infrastructure, see RiverLink’s WaterRICH Guide.

Other ways to get involved include volunteering to help monitor water quality in WNC streams through the Environmental Quality Institute or Mountain True’s Swim Guide. If you see a water quality violation—whether it is sediment leaving a construction site, noticeable colors or odors, or actual dumping into a stormwater drain or stream—notify your local municipality or the Regional Office of NC Division of Water Resources, 828-296-4500.

Reduce Rain Runoff

How Can You Help?

Ready to learn more? Head over to our Take Action page to learn more about simple ways you can reduce rain runoff at your residence or business.