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Tests identify E. Coli hot spots in river, efforts begin to “upgrade” river from grade C to B

LaTischa Franzmeier, Staff Writer

When the summer-swelter sends students in droves to languish in the Swannanoa River, the water around them is not entirely clear. “I’ve definitely talked to people who think the water is really gross and polluted,” said sophomore Shaina Castonguay. These fears might not be unfounded; recent testing done by the Western North Carolina Alliance has yielded some disturbing, if not expected, results.

Freshman Joel O'Brien tests the quality of the Swannanoa River.

For the first time, the Swannanoa is being checked from start to finish for harmful contaminants. A recent front-page article in The Asheville Citizen Times identified these as “sewage leaks and animal waste.” Out of the 40 tributary streams that have already been checked, 15 have shown signs of E. Coli. Two of these hot spots exceed the federal bacterial limit for water that should only be “rarely used.” According to the Citizen Times, one of these hot spots was near the Asheville Municipal Golf Course. The other was behind a Lowe’s on Tunnel Road.

The Swannanoa is being tested in order to be “upgraded.” It was chosen because of the high level of recreational use by local residents as well as Warren Wilson students. Currently, the Swannanoa is known as a Class C waterway, meaning it is too polluted to risk direct human contact. This type of designation requires a lot less attention from the federal government than a Class B river. The testing and clean-up is supposed to improve the current quality of the river. A “Class B” waterway is a suitable habitat for wildlife, is swimming-approved and can be used for agricultural endeavors such as the irrigation of crops. After the clean-up is complete, not only will it be legal to swim in the Swannanoa – it will be healthier, too.

But such changes do not happen overnight. The tests are not yet complete and are scheduled to resume in February.
The Warren Wilson Farm is quite close to the Swannanoa shoreline. When asked about the amount of contact the farm has with Warren Wilson’s waterway, senior Gordon Jones, meat sales manager on the Farm Crew, said, “There is an […] infrastructure in place to protect the river.” One only has to stroll down to the farm to see that Warren Wilson is Swannanoa-friendly – a plaque there proclaims just that.

According to Jones, “Livestock has no access to the Swannanoa or any of its tributaries.” The only equipment that goes anywhere near the water is to trim the grass on the outside of the buffer zone. In 2006, the farm and garden won the Conservation Farm Family of the Year in the Mountain Region award as chosen by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Not to mention, Farm Manager Chase Hubbard was elected in November 2010 to the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District’s board of supervisors.

Outside of Warren Wilson, local confidence regarding the river clean-up is not high. One commenter on the Citizen Times’ website asserted, “There’s a lot of work coming if they want to clean up the river. They need to start at the headwaters out at Black Mountain and all the valleys around there.”

This is exactly what is going to happen. Efforts aimed at cleaning the river have already been made by Warren Wilson students, but with the push from the surrounding community, a lot more is about to be accomplished.

The good news does not end there. If any readers feel frustrated and helpless, it is possible to join the fight for safer and cleaner water. If anyone, regardless of prior experience, desires to help test water quality in February, they may contact Hartwell Carson, the French Broad River Keeper, at hartwell@wnca.org or (828) 258 8737.

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