Keeping French Broad Clean Sometimes Takes Dirty Work

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Clad in waders and heavy boots, Hartwell Carson carefully lowered himself into a deep storm drain along Roberts Street in the River Arts District on Thursday, just a few blocks from the French Broad River.

As French Broad riverkeeper for the nonprofit environmental group MountainTrue, his job is to protect the river’s watershed and fight to keep it clean. Sometimes this means tromping around under the city.

Carson and MountainTrue watershed outreach coordinator Anna Alsobrook have been taking regular water samples from storm drains near the river to find sources of pollution, namely fecal coliform, bacteria that comes from animal and human waste.

“Really it goes back to public health and human health,” Alsobrook said. “If you’re swimming on a day when it is really dirty and get a bunch in your nose or swallow a bunch, you could get stomach problems or a sinus infection.”

Any summer weekend in Asheville, hundreds of people take to the river in tubes, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards or swim shorts — and they will unknowingly depend on people like Carson and Alsobrook to help keep the water clean, or let them know when it is not.

The two in November found evidence of a sewer system pipe leak making its way through storm drains before entering the river.

The Roberts Street drain last week measured about 6,000 units of the bacteria per 100 milliliters and another drain in the district tested the same. The water from the storm drains flows via underground streams into the stream behind the former 12 Bones restaurant. Unsurprisingly, samples from this stream measured more than 12,000 units.

Carson said a safe standard for a single water sample is 400 units, but he would like to have samples average about 200 units per 100 milliliters. The stream has never tested under 2,000.

With help from the Metropolitan Sewerage District, the State Department of Environmental Quality and the City of Asheville, they have tried to find the leak. They tested on weekday mornings and weekends to see whether the pipe could be coming from a business with heavier volume during the workweek.

The sewerage district blew smoke through the system to see where it leaked. They still couldn’t find it.

Thursday’s adventure into the land of turtles and other creatures may have been the break that MountainTrue has been looking for.

Before climbing into the storm drain, Carson and Alsobrook placed dye in different sewer lines to try to find the culprit. As he roamed under the city on Thursday, Carson found one color of the dye allowing him to trace it back to the pipe burst.

Sewerage district workers responded later that day and have been working to get the problem fixed.

For those worried about the safety of swimming in the French Broad River, there’s an app for that.

MountainTrue contributes to the Waterkeeper Swim Guide to let the public know when it is safe to swim.

Volunteers take weekly samples from different areas of the river and publish their findings as either safe to swim or not safe to swim based on bacteria levels. The information is available as an app or at

The data is only collected weekly so it is not always entirely accurate, but Alsobrook said there are other precautions people can take when deciding whether to swim.

Recent rain along the river kicks up mud which increases the amount of bacteria so a visual check of conditions before jumping in never hurts.

“If the river is clear then it should be good,” she said. “If it’s turbid maybe hold off for a while.”

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