Water Quality Challenges in the Upper French Broad River

Two people wear snorkeling gear stand in a river, one holding  mussel.
Jason Mays, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, holds a mussel in the Little River. Credit: Gary Peeples
Logo of the French Broad River Partnership

Upper French Broad River Basin

The Upper French Broad River basin is a vital resource that provides critical aquatic habitat for wildlife, supplies drinking water to many communities and supports a variety of forms of recreation. Overall, the river and its tributaries exhibit good water quality. There are some reaches, however, that have significant water quality problems. The most common pollutants in the French Broad River are sediment and pathogens

Sediment: When soil enters a waterbody through erosion, streambank degradation, or runoff it can smother life on the bottom and decrease visibility (as measured by turbidity) that can interfere with avoidance of predators, finding food, and reproductive activity, e.g., trout, darters, mussels, and a variety of insect larvae. Sediment is the most common type of pollution in North Carolina. Streams that lack vegetation on their banks and floodplain (called a riparian buffer) can receive sediment from stream bank erosion. Runoff from parking lots, unpaved roads, construction sites, logging areas, and agricultural fields can also carry sediment into streams during rainfall events.  

Pathogens: Fecal coliform and other pathogens* are contaminants that impair a water’s recreational use because they can make people ill. Pathogens can enter water bodies through a variety of means including failing septic systems, leaking sewer lines, runoff from livestock areas, urban stormwater runoff and outfalls, and problems with wastewater treatment plants.

The map below provides additional detail on water quality in the Upper French Broad Basin, click HERE for the interactive version. Included are the locations of sampling sites, active projects , impaired waters, etc. Following the map is additional information on the types of water quality data that are collected  across the basin and typical remedies used to address water quality issues.

Map of WQ projects and issues reported by FBRP members, and DEQ water quality classifications. Interactive map also includes several different monitoring results.

Water Quality Data Types

To monitor the health of a river, scientists and volunteers collect a variety of samples and data to assess the chemical, physical, and biological integrity.  The data collected can be categorized into two main groups: chemical, physical, and bacteriological data; and biological data.  The most common types of data gathered are described below.

Biological Measurements

In addition to measuring the chemical components of streams, rivers and lakes, the biota* of these systems can also provide important information about the health of our waters. Biological indicators are powerful tools for water quality assessment and ultimately can be more effective in identifying ongoing problems, as chemical samples only represent a snapshot of conditions, saving time and funding by allowing prioritization of where to undertake additional studies and remediation.

Benthic Macroinvertebrates.  At the bottom of rivers and streams live a group of insects known as benthic macroinvertebrates, because they are on the bottom and they are visible without a microscope. These insects (mostly in larval form) have varying tolerance to pollution and can therefore characterize the quality of the water in which they live. Based on the type and variety of species present, deductions can be made about the health status of the water resource. The State of NC uses benthic data to apply a bioclassification of Excellent, Good, Fair or Poor to sampled waters.

Fish Community. Similar to benthic macroinvertebrates, the types and variety of fish present in a stream or river can provide information about the quality of the waters where the fish live. The presence of species that require more oxygen or cleaner water indicate that the water is healthy.  In North Carolina, twelve metrics such as species abundance, composition, and reproductive status are used to generate an Index of Biotic Integrity along the spectrum of Poor to Excellent.  


1. pathogen–a bacterium, virus,or other microorganism that can cause disease

2. biota–animals and plants living in a particular region or habitat

Chemical Measurements

Examples of these data include water temperature, turbidity, and levels of various chemicals such as pesticides, mine leachates, and nutrients.  A few of the most common indicators  are described below. 

Turbidity.   Turbidity is a measurement of solids suspended in the water column and is reported in Nephelometric Turbidity Units or NTUs.  The general standard for “good” turbidity is 50 NTUs or less, though waters that are intended to support trout populations should not have turbidity in excess of 10 NTUs.

Fecal Coliform.   Fecal coliform comes from animal waste and is measured as a representative of many pathogens in surface waters that can make humans sick.  It is measured in a laboratory culture as the number of colonies per 100 milliliters of water.  Results should be based on a series of five consecutive samples taken within a 30-day period.  Waters with measurements of 200 colonies/100 ml. or below are considered safe for human recreation. 

Dissolved Oxygen.  Having enough oxygen dissolved in the water is critical to aquatic life and is measured in milligrams per liter (mg/l).  For freshwaters like those in the French Broad River basin levels below 5 mg/l are problematic for most aquatic animals.  Waters expected to support trout populations must have dissolved oxygen levels of 6 mg/l or above.

Remedies for Water Quality Issues

Many of today’s water quality issues are related to runoff from adjacent lands and developed areas. Whatever is happening next to streams, rivers, and lakes, whether it’s being used as a parking lot or as a timber resource, can have an impact on surface waters. This type of pollution is called ‘non-point source’ because it cannot be associated with a single source location. In contrast, ‘point source’ pollution arises from a known source, e.g., a pipe coming from a wastewater treatment plant or a manufacturing company.  Common management solutions for non-point source pollution are described below.  But first is an example of a project that has been or is currently being implemented in the Upper French Broad Basin.  Check back periodically for updated content on specific projects.

Project of the Month: This month we are highlighting the Mills River Partnership’s effort to identify and reduce log jams that don’t resolve on their own leading to unnecessary erosion.

Best Management Practices for Agriculture and Forestry

Agricultural and forestry activities can significantly impact adjacent waters.  But the use of good practices can reduce negative effects, e.g., maintenance of a vegetated buffer between creeks and areas of disturbed land; keeping cattle out of creeks; and keeping chemical spray away from the water.  There are many other approaches that can keep farms, forests, and our river healthy.  Often state and federal agencies offer incentives and assistance to farmers and timber harvesters to implement BMPs.  PROVIDE links to best practice guidelines. 


An important way to improve water quality in any area is to educate local citizens about how their activities affect streams, rivers, and lakes.  Many cities have programs to help their residents understand how to protect their river.  One example you may have seen is storm drain stenciling where it is painted to identify the waters to which it flows – like “Flows to French Broad River”.  This simple action helps people realize that what goes into that drain will end up in the river.  Education initiatives can range from storm drain project to educating students in the classroom or letting adults know that their beer was made with local river water.

Septic Tank Repairs

In rural areas the primary means of waste treatment is via septic systems.  If these systems are not properly maintained, they can degrade and fail, and their effluent can runoff into adjacent waters.  Repairing or replacing failed systems immediately eliminates the source of pollution.  Local government and non-profit organizations often work with affected homeowners to secure resources to fix the problem.

Stream Restoration and Streambank Stabilization

Sometimes, streams and rivers meander and change their direction, causing erosion of banks and sediment loading into the water.  Humans can make matters worse by removing vegetation along the banks that otherwise hold the soil and protect it from erosion.  Landowners or engineers can restore balance to rivers and streams so that such erosion is minimized through a design that anchors the bank with trees, shrubs, and rocks, that protect the bank’s integrity during storm events.  

Stormwater Management

Stormwater management typically refers to actions taken to treat or mitigate the quality, amount and speed of runoff entering surface waters.  For example, constructing stormwater ponds to hold the water and allow it to absorb into the ground; planting a rain garden that will slow the water’s movement into the storm system; or using more permeable pavement that allows water to directly move into the soil rather than running off into a stream. 

Watershed Planning

Cities, counties, and other environmental organizations can develop a watershed plan to coordinate their programs and activities, so they adequately protect their area.  Today, many government grants for projects must be based on a comprehensive watershed plan.  Project implementation is more effective and cost efficient when carefully conducted in the context of a quality planning document.

North Carolina Organizations that Monitor WQ and Natural Resource Health in the French Broad River Watershed

Environmental Quality Institute

The non-profit Environmental Quality Institute, located in Black Mountain, NC, works throughout the UFBR.  Two of their major efforts are the Volunteer Water Information Network (VWIN) and the Stream Monitoring Information Exchange (SMIE).  VWIN provides lab analyses and data interpretation of water samples taken by volunteers from streams and lakes in ten western North Carolina counties.  Similarly, volunteers gather biological data from western NC waters in the spring and fall through EQI’s SMIE program to complement VWIN data.  These efforts provide a vital resource to local communities and governments in the management of the region’s water resources.  Several members of the French Broad River Partnership actively participate in these sampling programs.  http://www.environmentalqualityinstitute.org/

French Broad Riverkeeper

 Founded in 2001, the French Broad Riverkeeper serves as a fundamental protector of the French Broad River watershed in Western North Carolina. The Riverkeeper fights for safe and healthy waterways for all citizens in the French Broad River watershed by bringing together local residents and communities to identify pollution sources, enforce and advocate for stronger environmental laws, engage in restoration [projects, and educate and empower the public. The French Broad Riverkeeper serves Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe, Haywood and Madison counties.  Offices are located in Asheville.  https://mountaintrue.org/waters/french-broad-riverkeeper/

Haywood Waterways Association

Haywood Waterways Association works in Haywood County to coordinate watershed restoration projects, educate and engage citizens, and monitor stream health to protect and improve the Pigeon River and its tributaries. Started in 1994, they partner with like-minded organizations to help willing landowners protect land, reduce pollutant loads, and improve waterways. They are local folks solving local issues that affect the economy, agriculture, drinking water, recreation, and wildlife. Their office is in Waynesville.  http://haywoodwaterways.org

Mills River Partnership

The Mills River Partnership (MRP), located in Mills River, is a not-for-profit organization that addresses water quality in the Mills River watershed.  Formed in 1998, MRP focuses on educating the local community about water quality issues and helping farmers and other landowners implement best management practices to control sediment and other pollutants.

Since inception, MRP has maintained a diverse board of directors, with members from the agricultural community, local governments, and conservation organizations.    https://www.millsriverwater.org

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality

Within NCDEQ is the Division of Water Resources which monitors waters all across the state. They use a variety of biological, chemical, and physical data to gauge the health of the state’s waters and when necessary identify remedial actions to address problems.  In the French Broad River basin, the state has ambient monitoring sites and benthic monitoring sites that are assessed on a regular basis.  NCDEQ is a participant in the FBRP.  https://deq.nc.gov/

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is the state government agency created by the General Assembly in 1947 to conserve and sustain the state’s fish and wildlife resources through research, scientific management, wise use and public input. The Commission is the regulatory agency responsible for the enforcement of N.C. fishing, hunting, trapping and boating laws.   

The sale of hunting and fishing licenses, federal grants and other receipts provide financial support of the agency. The Commission has an operational budget of approximately $65 million and employs more than 590 full-time staff across the state, including wildlife and fisheries biologists and technicians, wildlife law enforcement officers, wildlife educators, communication specialists, customer service, information technology and administrative professionals. Its biologists regularly survey stream biota in the French Broad River basin, focusing on fish, mussel, crayfish, snail, salamander, and turtle populations.  https://www.ncwildlife.org/

Located in the River Arts District of Asheville, RiverLink was established in the mid-1980s and works to promote the environmental and economic vitality of the French Broad River and its watershed. 

RiverLink accomplishes its mission by monitoring water quality and performing restoration projects, providing permanent public access to the river through conservation and recreation easements, reclaiming contaminated lands for public use and enjoyment, empowering over 1,000 volunteers each year, and educating over 3,000 students annually, as well as the public-at-large, about the importance of the French Broad River watershed.  https://riverlink.org

Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

SAHC works to conserve habitat, clean water, farmland, scenic beauty, and places for people to enjoy outdoor recreation in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee for the benefit of present and future generations. We achieve this by forging and maintaining long-term conservation relationships with private landowners and public agencies, owning and managing land and encouraging healthy local communities.  Since 1974, over 75,000 acres have been permanently protected in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee through the work of the SAHC.  The office is in Asheville.  https://appalachian.org


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission is, working with others, to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.  Through field work, research and partnering with other organizations, the USFWS helps to identify species’ ranges, distributions and requirements for survival, and to develop protections for those that are endangered or threatened, so species can survive and contribute to a healthy ecosystem, including humans and our activities.  The Asheville Field Office is a FBRP member.  https://www.fws.gov/asheville/