Highlands, NC Becomes the Country’s First BearWise Certified Town

Highlands, NC Becomes the Country’s First BearWise Certified Town

Highlands, NC Becomes the Country’s First BearWise Certified Town

It took a decade of effort, but this scenic Western North Carolina town did what no other town or city in the country has done to date: become a BearWise certified community. However, this major accomplishment was no easy feat.

Highlands’ six-member BearWise Liaison Committee — chaired by former MountainTrue Highlands Chapter head, Cynthia Strain — began its work as the Bear Education and Resources (B.E.A.R.) Task Force of MountainTrue. Members worked hard to engage their community with over a decade’s worth of educational programs, school visits, special events, newspaper articles, brochures, and online resources.

Becoming BearWise

Expertly developed by black bear biologists and supported by state wildlife agencies, BearWise, according to its website, “shares ways to prevent conflicts, provides resources to resolve problems, and encourages community initiatives to keep bears wild.” 

BearWise Communities

While no other town or city in the US has received a BearWise certification, it’s important to note that Asheville’s own Mountain Meadows neighborhood recently received its BearWise certification in October. The Mountain Meadows neighborhood is North Carolina’s first BearWise certified neighborhood — read more about the accomplishment here.

The BearWise website defines the three steps counties, cities, towns, or neighborhoods that want to become BearWise certified must take: 

First, communities must consult with local authorities (like conservation and police officers) or local experts (like fish and wildlife biologists) and assess if garbage and other food attractants are drawing the attention of local black bears. Potential food attractants include birdseed, pet food, and outdoor grills. 

Second, communities must organize and rally support for a BearWise certification among community members, after which they can discuss the next steps with local officials, including fish and wildlife personnel.

Lastly, communities must take action by implementing strategies to reduce human-black bear conflict. 

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s (NCWRC) BearWise certification process obligates interested North Carolina communities to meet five requirements that expand upon the three-step process described above. The NCWRC requires communities to establish a BearWise liaison committee to coordinate information and act as the point of contact between the community and the agency. 

Highlands has successfully met all of the NCWRC’s BearWise requirements, working with Mayor Patrick Taylor, community leaders, and NCWRC officials to effectively reduce instances of human-bear encounters in the town. Highlands residents and visitors should keep an eye out for BearWise certification signage, which will soon be proudly displayed throughout the town!  

Despite this monumental achievement, Highlands’ BearWise work continues. Being a BearWise certified community has proved to be a dynamic endeavor, explains Mayor Taylor, “We’ve had to go back and change ordinances several times, and we’ll change more. We always want to look back at what we’re doing and improve upon it.” 

Why it matters

While it can be a memorable experience to see wild black bears in an urban setting, it’s a risky one. Human-bear conflict is exacerbated by increased human development and subsequent habitat fragmentation, resulting in the increased likelihood of bears coming into contact with humans, especially in urban areas. Those interactions can be dangerous for humans and deadly for bears. Unfortunately, bears can become reliant on human sources of food and display more assertive or aggressive behaviors toward people. When such conflict arises, those ‘problem bears’ often have to be put down by Wildlife Resources staff. 

Highlands’ success in becoming a BearWise certified community makes a big statement about the importance of advocating for human-bear coexistence. Black bears are no strangers to residents of the Southern Blue Ridge; they live among us, trekking through our backyards and across city streets, and they’re often found digging through our neighborhood trash cans. 

Highlands’ trailblazing efforts showcase the fact that organized community action leads to impactful change. We hope other communities around North Carolina and the greater Southern Blue Ridge region are inspired by Highlands’ success and choose to follow in the town’s footsteps (or pawprints) in the years to come. 

On the importance of BearWise communities:

Ashley Hobbs, NCWRC Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist: “When you coexist, you keep the people safe and the bears wild… The bears can still move around; they’re just passing through. Highlands didn’t go halfway; they went all in. With all the effort that’s gone into this, you’ll see the benefit for years to come.” 

Colleen Olfenbuttel, NCWRC Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist: “Not only is Highlands the first town to be BearWise certified, but the passion of the people working to accomplish this is a model community for North Carolina… People need to adapt to living with bears, and becoming a BearWise Community is key.” 

Check out the BearWise website to:

  • Learn more about black bears and human-black bear coexistence
  • Get important safety tips
  • Download fact sheets and kids’ activity sheets
  • Find out how your community can become BearWise certified

Swim Guide Watershed Report: Watauga River Watershed

Swim Guide Watershed Report: Watauga River Watershed

Swim Guide Watershed Report: Watauga River Watershed

In the past year, the Watauga River Watershed experienced a range of highs and lows (we’re talking about bacteria counts, folks!). We’ll start with the good news, including which water testing sites had the lowest bacteria counts across the watershed. Then, we’ll give you the year’s bad news by spotlighting sites with the highest bacteria counts. We’ll conclude with achievable solutions for the future and a call to action so you can continue to help us protect the places we share.

Before we dive into our water quality summary, let’s review important terminology to help us better understand the data our Riverkeepers, volunteers, and Clean Waters teams worked so hard to collect, analyze, and report. Cfu, or colony forming unit, is a metric scientists use to estimate the number of microbes present per 100 milliliters of a singular water sample. Microbes (also known as microorganisms) include bacteria, algae, and fungi. Like most things, some microbes are good for human health and some aren’t. We test for E. coli bacteria because it’s the best indicator for the presence of microbes that pose threats to human health.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 235 cfu/100mL is the safe standard for primary recreational waters, where people are most likely to engage in recreational activities involving underwater immersion and potential water ingestion.

Good news headline: Popular Watauga River Spots Still Safe for Recreation 

Popular among anglers, swimmers, sunbathers, and kayakers, our water quality testing site at Guy Ford remains the only Watauga River site to have experienced a statistically significant decrease in E. coli levels from 2020-2021. With an average value of 80.3 cfu/100mL, Guy Ford passes the EPA’s 235 cfu/100mL safe standard with ease. 

About Our Swim Guide Program

Swim Guide is an international program used by Riverkeepers and other advocates to provide up-to-date recreational E. coli data for beaches, lakes, and rivers worldwide. E. coli is a bacteria found in the fecal waste of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and indicates contamination in our waterways. E. coli levels increase with rainfall events due to surface runoff and sewer overflow events.

Samples are collected every Wednesday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Volunteers collect surface water samples in a 100mL sample bottle and drop samples off at the lab, to be processed by MountainTrue staff. Results from samples are measured in MPN, the most probable number of colony-forming units (cfu). The EPA’s limit for recreational water quality is 235 cfu/100mL. The EPA estimates at that concentration, 8 in 1,000 people will contract an illness.

Pass/Fail results are updated every Friday on www.swimguide.org to inform the public about local water quality. We use the data generated from our Swim Guide Program to identify sites for follow-up sampling. We sample in both urban and rural areas. Determining the location and source of E. coli in our waterways is one way we can hold polluters accountable.

Our other best testing sites of 2021 include the Upper Gorge Watauga Park off Highway 321, Watauga Point, Wilbur Dam, Shook Branch, and Price Lake. All five sites passed the EPA’s safe standard. 

Data collected from 76% of all 18 sampled sites reported no statistically significant change this year, meaning E. coli levels did not increase or decrease from 2020-2021. While this isn’t the result we’d hoped for, we’ll take it. 

Bad news headline: E. Coli has a Dirty Affair with Lover’s Lane and Other Popular Spots in the Watauga River Watershed 

Our data showcases the pressing need for water quality improvement across the Watauga River Watershed. Unfortunately, sites along the Watauga, New, and Elk Rivers rank among the Watauga River Watershed’s worst testing sites. This year, popular Watauga River accesses like Lover’s Lane, Hunter Bridge, and Blevins Road Boat Ramp experienced alarming increases in bacteria concentrations. 

Our Lover’s Lane site secured the top worst spot with an average E. coli count of 1754.9 cfu/100mL. Average E. coli levels were approximately three times the EPA’s 235 cfu/100mL safe standard at Hunter Bridge and Blevins Road Boat Ramp. 

With E. coli levels above 590 cfu/100mL, both Elk River Falls and the New River’s Todd Island Park failed to pass the EPA’s safe standard. The latter, along with the New River’s Boone Greenway, ranked among Watauga County’s worst sites of 2021. Our Watauga River testing site off Calloway Road also fared poorly. 

This year we saw 17% of our water quality testing sites experience increased overall  E. coli levels compared to 2021. This increase is not considered statistically significant due to the wide variation among this year’s water quality samples, taken weekly during the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

Our weekly sampling often took place after or during a rain event. We believe that likely contributed to this year’s wide variation in average E. coli levels, which was double that of 2020’s. 

This year’s increase in average E. coli levels is a concerning trend across the watershed. The average E. coli count for 2021’s 15-week sampling period was 408.04 cfu/100mL, up from 2020’s average of 238.76 cfu/100mL.  

Hurricane Fred caused the week of August 18 to be the summer’s worst. After Fred’s heavy rainfall and flash flooding events, the watershed’s E. coli levels skyrocketed to 1222 cfu/100mL. Additional rain events correlated with the summer’s other average E. coli level peaks.  

Future news headline: Direct Action Needed to Mitigate Impacts of Climate Change, Increased Development, and Tourism Across Watauga River Watershed 

A symptom of climate change, increased annual rainfall and flash flooding events, will undoubtedly cause a decline in water quality across the watershed. Growing tourism pressure and resulting development projects will continue to exacerbate the existing strain on our region’s failing infrastructure. 

If left unchecked, stormwater infrastructure deficiencies will open the literal and figurative flood gates, allowing increased polluted and bacteria-laden stormwater runoff to enter local waters. 

Moving forward, MountainTrue will:

  • Encourage government officials to implement policies addressing land use and development impacts and make worthy investments to improve existing stormwater infrastructure.
  • Continue to monitor sites of most concern while aiming to pinpoint and eliminate sources of E. coli pollution at our newest testing sites in the near future.
  • Further develop valued relationships with community members to combat threats posed to water quality by poor development and agricultural practices. 

Want to learn more about our efforts to bring about clean water for all? Check out our ILoveRivers webpage and join MountainTrue’s dedicated community of volunteers to help us protect the places we share.

Swim Guide Watershed Report: Hiwassee River Watershed

Swim Guide Watershed Report: Hiwassee River Watershed

Swim Guide Watershed Report: Hiwassee River Watershed

For the Hiwassee River Watershed, the 2021 water quality testing season gave rise to laudable successes. It also illuminated the need for deliberate action in areas of most concern. We’ll start with the good news, including which water testing sites had the lowest bacteria counts across the watershed. Then, we’ll give you the year’s bad news by spotlighting sites with the highest bacteria counts. We’ll conclude with achievable solutions for the future and a call to action so you can continue to help us protect the places we share.

Before we dive into our water quality summary, let’s review important terminology to help us better understand the data our Clean Waters team worked so hard to collect, analyze, and report. Cfu, or colony forming unit, is a metric scientists use to estimate the number of microbes present per 100 milliliters of a singular water sample. Microbes (also known as microorganisms) include bacteria, algae, and fungi. Like most things, some microbes are good for human health and some aren’t. We test for E. coli bacteria because it’s the best indicator for the presence of microbes that pose threats to human health.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 235 cfu/100mL is the safe standard for primary recreational waters, where people are most likely to engage in recreational activities involving underwater immersion and potential water ingestion.

Good news headline: Lakes Largely Free of E. Coli and Other Pathogens

Twenty twenty-one has been kind to Hiwassee Lake, Lake Chatuge, and Late Nottely. Sites on these three lakes produced a total of 11 readings with zero E. coli or other pathogens. Hiwassee Lake at Hanging Dog secured this year’s prize for best site with an average E. coli count of 6.5 cfu/100mL.

About Our Swim Guide Program

Swim Guide is an international program used by Riverkeepers and other advocates to provide up-to-date recreational E. coli data for beaches, lakes, and rivers worldwide. E. coli is a bacteria found in the fecal waste of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and indicates contamination in our waterways. E. coli levels increase with rainfall events due to surface runoff and sewer overflow events.

Samples are collected every Wednesday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Volunteers collect surface water samples in a 100mL sample bottle and drop samples off at the lab, to be processed by MountainTrue staff. Results from samples are measured in MPN, the most probable number of colony-forming units (cfu). The EPA’s limit for recreational water quality is 235 cfu/100mL. The EPA estimates at that concentration, 8 in 1,000 people will contract an illness.

Pass/Fail results are updated every Friday on www.swimguide.org to inform the public about local water quality. We use the data generated from our Swim Guide Program to identify sites for follow-up sampling. We sample in both urban and rural areas. Determining the location and source of E. coli in our waterways is one way we can solve pollution problems.

Bacteria levels in Lake Chatuge’s swimming beaches at Jackrabbit Mountain and in Towns County, Georgia, were commendably low. With an average E. coli count of 25.4 cfu/100mL, Lake Nottely’s Poteete Creek Park swimming beach also passed the EPA’s 235 cfu/100mL safe primary recreation standard with flying colors. Additionally, Clay County’s Fires Creek proved to be in good condition. 

While not as clean as Hiwassee Lake or Lake Chatuge, samples taken from Lake Nottely and along the Nottely River showcase the relatively clean quality of these western waters. We collected our water quality samples during the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Fortunately, our testing site at Nottely Dam failed to pass the EPA’s safe primary recreation standard only once.  

Bad news headline: Heavy Rains, Leaky Septic Systems, and Animal Agriculture are Culprits of Hiwassee River Watershed’s Bacteria Pollution

Our Valley River site at Konehete Park rushed into 2021’s top worst spot with an E. coli count of 914 cfu/100mL, failing to pass the EPA’s safe primary recreation standard 80% of the time. Years of continued bacteria pollution have sadly caused the lower end of the Valley River to remain on North Carolina’s List of Impaired and Threatened Waters

Poor animal agricultural practices, domesticated Canada Goose populations, and leaky septic systems are the primary causes of pollution in the Valley River. Monthly testing conducted upstream in both Andrews and Marble indicate that the Valley River’s E. coli problem is presently contained in the lower third of the river system. 

Similarly, animal agriculture in the Sweetwater Creek Watershed is likely a primary contributor to the Hiwassee River’s larger E. coli pollution problem. One of our worst testing sites along the Hiwassee River, Sweetwater Park’s average E. coli count of 396 cfu/100mL failed to pass the EPA’s safe primary recreation standard 40% of the time. Monthly testing conducted upstream and downstream of Sweetwater Park suggests the bacteria pollution is currently isolated in a small portion of the Hiwassee River, including the confluence of Sweetwater Creek. 

Another one of our worst sites of 2021, Meeks Park II canoe/kayak launch on the Nottely River produced an average E. coli count of 342 cfu/100mL and failed to pass the EPA’s safe primary recreation standard 53% of the time. 

The week of September 1 proved to be the summer’s worst, with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida wreaking havoc across much of the Southeast. On average, the Hiwassee River Watershed received four inches of rain in the 48 hours before that week’s samples were taken. Ida’s increased rainfall caused the average E. coli count across each of our 10 water quality testing sites to spike at 371 cfu/100mL. 

The weeks of August 11 and 18 also saw portions of the Hiwassee River Watershed receive several inches of rainfall shortly before our samples were taken. Hurricane Fred’s surge of stormwater in mid-August resulted in the highest overall E. coli levels of the summer at seven of our testing sites. 

Future news headline: Mitigating Threats Posed to Hiwassee River Watershed by Pollution

The Hiwassee River Watershed is relatively clean. Still, we must be wary of negative changes associated with future summer seasons’ heavy rains. Polluted stormwater runoff remains a formidable threat to the Hiwassee River Watershed and the whole of the Southern Blue Ridge. 

Water quality will suffer as higher annual amounts of stormwater runoff enter local waters due to climate change. Poor animal agriculture practices, outdated stormwater infrastructure, and decrepit septic systems will lead to future declines in water quality. That’s why we need to take action to address climate change — a pressing issue that affects us all. 

MountainTrue is currently working with our state legislators to reinstate the Waste Discharge Elimination (WaDE) program, which is focused on identifying and fixing impaired septic systems. We also aim to secure increased funding for County Soil and Water Conservation Districts through our work with the North Carolina State Legislature. This necessary funding would help farmers adopt additional best management practices, like fencing livestock out of waterways and installing stream buffers to mitigate bacteria-laden runoff. 

We believe these solutions will significantly improve the Valley River’s water quality and positively impact other Hiwassee River Watershed sections.

Moving forward, MountainTrue will:

  • Encourage government officials to implement policies addressing land use and development impacts and make worthy investments to improve existing stormwater and septic system infrastructure.
  • Continue to monitor sites of most concern while aiming to pinpoint and eliminate sources of E. coli pollution at our newest testing sites in the near future. 
  • Further develop valued relationships with community members and our local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to minimize threats posed to water quality by poor animal agriculture practices. 

Want to learn more about our efforts to bring about clean water for all? Check out our ILoveRivers webpage and join MountainTrue’s dedicated community of volunteers to help us protect the places we share.