What do Healthy Mountain Rivers Mean to You?

What do Healthy Mountain Rivers Mean to You?

Testing Sites

River Basins



Protecting our mountain waters wouldn’t be possible without the help of members, volunteers, and supporters like you.

With your help, we will maintain E. coli sampling at 85 popular swimming areas this summer. Samples will be taken, processed, analyzed, and published on the easy-to-use Swim Guide website and smartphone app before starting your weekends!

Will you help us monitor and report water quality conditions at popular swimming areas this summer? Consider making a donation today.

Our goal is to raise $20,000 by May 30 to help fund this summer’s Swim Guide E. coli sampling program. Each sample costs $30, which includes staff time, supplies, lab analysis, and travel expenses. Businesses or organizations can fully sponsor a site for $500/year with recognition on the Swim Guide platform and social media.   

“I like to paddleboard, so water quality is important to me. People need a tool like the Swim Guide app to know when the water is safe. My friends and I care about sharing these results and letting community members know about this amazing tool. MountainTrue addresses pollutants they find in the river and advocates for better policies that will protect it.” 
-Tiffany Narron, Swim Guide Volunteer
“I love getting outside and helping our Riverkeepers by taking water samples, and it’s especially rewarding to see the results posted within 24 hours so my friends and I know the water conditions before the weekend.” 
-Erica Shanks, MountainTrue Board Member and Swim Guide Volunteer
“I’m a hardcore river enthusiast, spending a lot of time canoeing and paddleboarding. I need to know if the water I’m playing in is safe. I appreciate how local this is to the High Country. It’s awesome to know where it’s safe and have that knowledge be current for my family and dogs. I love the sampling side because I get to feel like I’m contributing.” 
Jordan Sellers, Swim Guide Volunteer
“The City of Hiawassee strives to have the best water quality. Being out on the lake and knowing it’s safe to boat, swim, and fish in is important. We really appreciate our relationship with MountainTrue.” 
Liz Ordiales, Mayor of Hiawassee, GA

We want you and your family to be able to visit publicly accessible swimming areas without having to worry about health risks. Swim Guide makes it easy for people to know when their water is contaminated and when it is safe to swim, giving our community the information needed to prevent waterborne illnesses. Our sampling will also help us identify problem areas where work is needed to improve water quality for the future.

Will you stand with MountainTrue? We need you to take action today so our waters can be healthy today and for generations to come. Help us reach our $20,000 goal by donating today.

From all of us on the MountainTrue Clean Water Team, thank you for making this summer swim season the safest one yet!

2021 State of the River Reports

2021 State of the River Reports

2021 State of the River Reports

The 2021 State of the River Reports are finally here! In this blog, we’ll discuss the cleanliness and water quality of the French Broad, Broad and Green, and Watauga River watersheds. 

There are four sets of data that MountainTrue uses to formulate our water quality rankings for each stream, including:

  • E. coli data taken by MountainTrue’s riverkeepers and water quality monitoring volunteers.
  • Aquatic insect (a.k.a., benthic macroinvertebrate) data — part of the Stream Monitoring Information Exchange program (SMIE) — from the Environmental Quality Institute. Learn more about SMIE here
  • Chemical data — part of the Volunteer Water Information Network (VWIN) — from the Environmental Quality Institute.
  • Chemical, aquatic insect, fish, and bacteria data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ).

The data from testing sites in streams across each watershed are weighed, and each stream is given a letter grade. The grading scale is as follows: 

A (90-100): These streams have excellent water quality, low pollution levels, and healthy aquatic insect and fish populations.

B (80-89): These streams have good water quality but some impacts from pollution or development. The aquatic life and fish populations are relatively healthy.

C (70-79): These streams have average water quality. There are some concerns about pollution inputs and development impacts. Generally, aquatic life and fish populations are healthy but could become negatively impacted

D (60-69): These streams have below-average water quality. Pollution is a concern, and aquatic life and fish populations are not as healthy as they should be.

F (<60): These streams have poor water quality. Pollution levels are often high, and aquatic life and fish populations are impacted.

When comparing this year’s report to 2018’s report, it’s important to note that the way we process our water samples for E.coli at MountainTrue has changed. Up until 2018, we used an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved method using Coliscan Easygel. The results from this method were sometimes subjective and thus could be less accurate. In 2019, we switched to another EPA-approved protocol, using the Idexx system. Those results are quicker, more objective, and more accurate. This 2021 report includes E.coli data from both analysis methods (2018 Swim Guide data using Coliscan Easygel and 2019-2021 Swim Guide data using the Idexx system).

 Now, let’s review the findings from each of the three reports.

The state of the French Broad River Watershed:

 Of the 62 testing sites across the French Broad River Watershed, 16% received an A grade, 20.9% received a B grade, 29% received a C grade, 25.8% received a D grade, and 6% received an F grade. 

Overall, we observe a general decline in water quality. We attribute this to two primary factors — climate change and increasing construction and development throughout the watershed. Asheville and the surrounding region have experienced more frequent heavy rains in the last several years. Climate change in the Southern Blue Ridge region is expected to present random “boom and bust” patterns in precipitation, seen as floods and droughts in our region. This causes increased stormwater runoff from urban areas and agriculture operations, along with more sewer overflows and saturated septic fields surrounding failing septic systems. It also brings extra sediment into our waterways from construction sites and weak riverbanks, which can smother aquatic habitats, increase water temperature, and transport toxins into our rivers. All of this is happening during a period of unprecedented recreational growth on the French Broad. 

We documented the most dramatic change in Transylvania County, as the quality of the Upper French Broad decreased significantly. We attribute part of this decrease in quality to our transition to new, more accurate E.coli sampling protocols. However, that doesn’t explain the whole picture since water quality in other parts of the watershed didn’t drop as steeply. Notoriously the wettest county in the state, this drop in water quality is indicative of the effects that a changing climate coupled with increasing development is having on our region. 

On a positive note, the Nolichucky Watershed saw increased water quality with high grades in benthic and fish samples. Such pristine waters cannot be taken for granted, which is why we’re advocating for the Nolichucky River between Poplar, NC, and Erwin, TN, to be permanently protected with a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation.

Four Cleanest Streams:

  • Cataloochee Creek (A)
  • Cathey’s Creek (A)
  • Bent Creek (A)
  • South Toe (A)

Four Dirtiest Streams:

  • French Broad River – Pisgah Forest (F)
  • French Broad River – Etowah (F)
  • French Broad River – Hominy Creek (F)
  • French Broad River – Westfeldt (F)

 Learn more about the state of the French Broad River Watershed by reviewing last year’s Swim Guide results.

The state of the Broad and Green River watersheds: 

Of the 18 testing sites across the Broad and Green River watersheds, 27% received an A grade, 61% received a B grade, none received a C grade, 5.5% received a D grade (1 site), and 5.5% received an F grade (1 site). 

The Green River is the largest tributary of the Broad River in North Carolina, and its headwaters are largely protected. From its source in Henderson County to Lake Summit, the Upper Green is significantly impacted by agriculture, poor stream management practices, and lack of appropriate riparian buffers. 

The Green River flows into the Broad River near the Polk and Rutherford County Line. Major tributaries in the lower Green River Watershed include Walnut Creek from the north and White Oak Creek from the south. In a tale of two tributaries, the former touts excellent water quality and benefits from a large nature preserve while the latter suffers from degraded water quality as a result of development, land clearing, agriculture, and other intensive land use. 

By the time the First Broad reaches Shelby, it fails to meet EPA bacteria standards nearly 50% of the time. First Broad tributary Buffalo Creek has a history of high bacteria levels and feeds Moss Lake — Cleveland County’s only public reservoir and the water supply for Kings Mountain. In June 2020, NC DEQ documented Moss Lake’s first-ever harmful algal bloom (HAB) — this is a big concern for nearby residents, recreationists, and all who depend on Moss Lake for their drinking water supply. 

Overall, water quality in the most popular recreational area on the main stem of the Broad River is pretty good. The river is so large that contaminants of concern in the tributaries are diluted, and bacteria levels at the Broad River Greenway in Cleveland County almost always meet EPA standards for safe recreation.

Four Cleanest Streams:

  • First Broad River – North Fork (A)
  • Moss Lake (A)
  • North Pacolet River – Near Tryon (A)
  • Big Hungry River (A)

Four Dirtiest Streams:

  • Buffalo Creek – Above Moss Lake (F)
  • Sandy Run Creek (D)
  • Lower Broad River (B)
  • Upper Broad River (B)

Learn more about the state of the Broad and Green River watersheds by reviewing last year’s Swim Guide results.

The state of the Watauga River Watershed:

Of the 27 testing sites in the Watauga River Watershed, 37% received an A grade, 33% received a B grade, 11% received a C grade, 3.7% received a D grade (1 site), and 14.8% received an F grade. 

Overall, water quality is pretty good across the Watauga River Watershed, which originates at an elevation of 5,964 feet on the northern slopes of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. The 78-mile-long 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. 

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 for water quality and environmental conservation in the Watauga River Basin. 

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. 

Fortunately, 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 and thus require additional treatment 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.

Four Cleanest Streams: 

  • Watauga River @ Adam’s Apple Dr Bridge (A)
  • Watauga River @ Wilbur Dam Rd Bridge (A)
  • Watauga River @ Smalling Rd Bridge (A)
  • Elk River @ Lees-McRae Mill Pond (A)

Four Dirtiest Streams:

  • Watauga River @ Lover’s Lane (F)
  • Watauga River @ Hunter Bridge (F)
  • Watauga River @ Blevins Boat Ramp (F)
  • Watauga River @ Calloway Rd. Bridge (F)

 Learn more about the state of the Watauga River Watershed by reviewing last year’s Swim Guide results.

Take Action Against Single-Use Plastic Pollution in Boone

Take Action Against Single-Use Plastic Pollution in Boone

Take Action Against Single-Use Plastic Pollution in Boone

Plastic pollution: we’ve all seen it littered on the side of the road, blowing in the wind, floating down rivers and streams.


Plastic pollution is a global problem, but we all have to be part of the solution. Together, we can stop plastic pollution at its source. Let’s enact common-sense laws at the state and local levels to limit the use of single-use plastics before they end up as litter in our rivers, lakes, and streams.

Our water quality testing concludes that microplastic pollution is widespread throughout the Watauga River Basin and other Western North Carolina waterways. Together, we can stop plastic pollution at its source. That’s why we’re working to implement a single-use plastic ban in the Town of Boone. We can and should enact common-sense legislation at the local level to limit the use of single-use plastics before they end up as litter and microplastic pollution in Boone’s rivers, lakes, and streams. Visit the Plastic-Free WNC website to learn more about our plastics-focused work in Western North Carolina and Boone

Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill on plastic pollution: “We’ve spent years conducting river cleanups, engaging hundreds of volunteers and partner organizations. We spend a lot of time on the Watauga, New, and Elk Rivers collecting water samples, planting trees, and tracking pollution. I thought we had a good handle on the plastic problem. A watershed change and paradigm shift for how I considered the issue came about when we partnered with the Town of Boone and Asheville Greenworks to install a passive litter collection device known as a Trash Trout. The data we began collecting on the type and amount of single-use plastics — including styrofoam and other littered items — truly blew us away.” 


Want to join us in taking a stand against plastic pollution in Boone? Email Boone Town Council using the form below:

Plastic-Free WNC

Plastic-Free WNC

Plastic-Free WNC

​​Plastic pollution: we’ve all seen it littered on the side of the road, blowing in the wind, floating down rivers and streams. Plastic pollution is a global problem, but we all have to be part of the solution.

Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill on plastic pollution: “We’ve spent years conducting river cleanups, engaging hundreds of volunteers and partner organizations. We spend a lot of time on the Watauga, New, and Elk Rivers collecting water samples, planting trees, and tracking pollution. I thought we had a good handle on the plastic problem. A watershed change and paradigm shift for how I considered the issue came about when we partnered with the Town of Boone and Asheville Greenworks to install a passive litter collection device known as a Trash Trout. The data we began collecting on the type and amount of single-use plastics — including styrofoam and other littered items — truly blew us away.” 

MountainTrue Watershed Outreach Coordinator Anna Alsobrook clearly remembers the day she and French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson were confronted with the dismal reality of the plastic pollution crisis: “It was the final straw — figuratively and literally. A few years ago, Hartwell and I were paddling the Swannanoa River. Plastic was everywhere — thousands of plastic shopping bags littered the trees around us, and plastic bottles floated in the river like rafts of ducks. These weren’t new sights for us by any means, but they were the ultimate kick in the gut to start making more permanent changes to protect our rivers and streams.”

Following their experience, Anna and Hartwell started researching the plastics industry. The more they learned, the more they disliked. The strategy of the plastics industry is akin to the tobacco industry — both forced themselves on unsuspecting populations, fully aware of their products’ adverse health and environmental impacts. Both marketed themselves as “cool” and continue to disproportionately burden our most vulnerable populations with hazardous health concerns. 

Cigarette usage has been on the decline since the tobacco industry’s regulation. The plastics industry, to this point, has gotten a free pass. Wrapped up in the oil and gas industry, Big Plastic is cozy with the idea of buying politicians and bullying consumers into buying their products. With few sustainable, affordable, and accessible plastic alternatives, we — the general public — remain Big Plastic’s captive audience.

Some places have started implementing their own rules on plastic — eight states have implemented their own single-use plastic bans, along with 345 municipalities across the nation. We at MountainTrue want to follow their lead, hopefully inspiring others to do the sameWe based our proposed ordinance on the various successes of existing single-use plastic bans. It’s intended to mitigate plastic pollution in Western North Carolina by addressing the single-use plastic problem at its source. 

Now, let’s get into the details:

We begin the ordinance with a whole slew of “Whereases” — a standard practice in bills and ordinances. Our Whereases spell out atrocities of the polluted reality perpetuated by the plastics industry: a reality characterized by environmental injustice, rife with increasingly negative impacts on human and environmental health. 

The ordinance’s first section defines key terms and concepts, like what makes an item single-use, compostable, reusable, etc. We based these definitions on best practices across the country.

The following sections are the figurative meat of the ordinance:

Section two details prohibitions on: 

  • Polystyrene as a primary chemical additive in styrofoam food and beverage containers
  • Plastic shopping bags at points of sale
  • Plastic stirrer sticks and splash guards
  • Plastic straws (we recommend a request-only policy, though nursing homes and hospitals are exempt from this policy)

Some items in this section have built-in exceptions: the ban on plastic shopping bags excludes bags used for produce, bulk items, meats, seafood, flowers, small hardware, live animals (like fish or insects), dry cleaning, or hotel-provided laundry bags. It also excludes yard waste, pet waste, and garbage bags.

With the ban on plastic shopping bags at points of sale, we hope to encourage people to bring their own bags to the store. But, people are human and will forget sometimes. To cover those times, stores can provide paper bags for a fee of $0.10 each. They can also offer reusable bags for sale at checkout. Some locations already provide empty cardboard boxes for customers to use, and that’s ok too. The purpose of the paper bag fee is to discourage customers from relying on paper bags — which have their own environmental impacts — each time they shop. Anyone with SNAP or WIC benefits will be exempt from the fee.   

Section four highlights our proposed bans on disposable plastic service ware. The ban differentiates dine-in versus take-out operations. We recommend that no disposable plastic service ware be provided for dine-in customers and encourage businesses to provide reusable service ware instead. Should a business lack the dishwashing capacity to provide reusables, they are exempt and can provide alternative sustainable service ware. We recommend businesses provide no disposable plastic service ware for take-out operations and instead provide sustainable service ware at the customer’s request. 

The next sections highlight the ordinance’s implementation and enforcement criteria: 

From the passage of the ordinance, businesses will have a set amount of time to source new sustainable alternatives and exhaust their current stocks of and contracts for single-use plastics. Businesses that fail to comply with the ordinance after that period will face penalties of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense. 

You can read our proposed ordinance in its entirety here

Together, we can stop plastic pollution at its source. Let’s enact common-sense laws at the state and local levels to limit the use of single-use plastics before they end up as litter in our rivers, lakes, and streams. Visit our Plastic-Free WNC site to learn more and take action against plastic pollution in WNC. And join us at 7 p.m. on January 26 for our virtual screening of The Story of Plastic.  

MountainTrue FAQ: Live Staking

MountainTrue FAQ: Live Staking

MountainTrue FAQ: Live Staking

We love live staking here at MountainTrue, as it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to support native biodiversity and stream bank restoration! This blog hopes to answer many of the frequently asked questions we get about live staking. Most of this information is general, but some is specific to the Watauga Basin and Riverkeeper Program. 

Q: What’s live staking?

Live staking is a method of stream bank repair using native tree cuttings to revegetate the riparian buffer. The riparian buffer consists of trees, shrubs, and grasses alongside stream banks — it plays a crucial role in protecting stream health. The resiliency of riparian buffers is frequently impacted by land use. Activities like mowing to the edge of a stream, cutting down trees to see the water, or new development can negatively impact water quality. By live staking, we can positively and directly impact the overall health of our waterways! 

Q: Where do you get the stakes from?

We get our live stakes from Foggy Mountain Nursery in Lansing, NC — their team harvests the stakes from native tree species, cutting stakes two to three feet long and one-half to two inches thick. While it’s possible to cut the stakes ourselves, we choose to support a fantastic local business and ensure that we’re planting the correct species. We’ve also harvested stakes from our previous live staking sites, where planted stakes have become well established. 

Q: How do you choose where you’ll be planting?

We prioritize local public parks and river accesses because they’re easy to access and directly benefit the public. We’ve frequented Valle Crucis Community Park in Banner Elk, Cove Creek, and other public riverside locations around Watauga County. We also partnered with the City of Hendersonville to host two live staking workdays in Henderson County this February! 

Q: What species do you plant?

We only plant tree species native to our region — primarily silky willow, silky dogwood, elderberry, and ninebark stakes. We’ve also planted other species, like buttonbush, black willow, and red stem dogwood. Recommended for stream bank repair by the NC State Cooperative Extension, these native tree species prefer moist soil and thrive in riparian habitats. These species support native wildlife, especially local pollinators. They can also establish extensive root systems to successfully hold soil in place along riparian buffers, ultimately preventing erosion. 

Q: Why do you plant during the winter?

Live stakes are living cuttings of dormant trees that can propagate or sprout a new plant from the cutting of the parent plant. During winter, trees enter a state of dormancy to conserve their energy and weather the colder temperatures. Our live staking season lasts from November to March. We plant hearty hardwood stakes that use their energy to establish roots, waiting until spring to grow their branches and leaves. These resilient roots serve as a stream bank’s first line of defense against erosion, especially during high-flow events. Planting live stakes while tree species are in their natural pattern of energy conservation allows for a higher likelihood of survival along riparian buffers. 

Q: How successful are the stakes?

Live stakes have a survival rate of 30-80%. However, survival varies from species to species and depends on environmental conditions. For example, we’d likely have very low survivability if a drought occurred after planting. But, if we plant under ideal conditions using correct planting techniques and have favorable weather post-planting, our stakes can do remarkably well! We can also remove invasive plant species and water the freshly planted live stakes to give them a better chance of success. 

Stakes are most successful when planted along naturally sloped stream banks. They can still be planted on extremely incised banks, though they’re more likely to be less impactful in those locations. In our experience, silky willow and silky dogwood stakes tend to fare better than other native tree species we plant. 

Q: How long does it take for the stakes to grow?

Roots, leaves, and branches can be well established after one growing season. From there, they continue to grow in length from the tips of their roots and branches year after year. 

Q: How do live stakes benefit our waterways?

Live stakes grow root systems that hold soil in place and prevent erosion in local waterways. Sediment pollution remains a significant threat to the Watauga River Basin. This type of pollution clogs aquatic habitats and transports toxic substances through local waterways, increasing water temperatures and negatively impacting native biodiversity.

Once planted, small live stakes will grow into larger trees that stabilize and support riparian buffer health. Healthy riparian buffers benefit stream health in a multitude of ways — they also absorb nutrients, create wildlife habitat, and reduce the intensity of flooding from rain events. Unvegetated streams are often incised and can lose several feet of bank in a single rain event — this can be detrimental to nearby homes and other structures. 

Q: What’s a typical day of planting?

We prep the stakes by cutting the live ends at a 45-degree angle. The NC State Cooperative Extension states that such cutting is enough to catalyze root growth at the nodes. The folks at Foggy Mountain Nursery kindly mark the planting ends of our stakes, so we know which ends to cut (pictured right). Once prepped and ready, we take the stakes in buckets down to the stream. We plant along the bank from the water’s edge to the bank’s top — not in the actual stream bed. Stakes are planted at an angle and submerged into the soil about two-thirds of the way. From there, the rest of the work is up to the stakes!

Want to learn more about live staking? Check out our Events page to sign up for one of our upcoming volunteer workdays, or contact our resident live staking experts listed below:

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.