Summer holidays are a great time to get out for a day of paddling on the river or to pay a visit to a favorite swimming hole. But doing so safely this year requires a little more forethought and vigilance. MountainTrue, the Broad Riverkeeper, the French Broad Riverkeeper, the Green Riverkeeper and the Watauga Riverkeeper are encouraging people to both practice good social distancing etiquette as well as checking the rivers’ E. coli levels on the swim guide website or smartphone app.
“Western North Carolina has so many wonderful rivers to swim and play in,” explains Gray Jernigan, Green Riverkeeper and Southern Regional Director for MountainTrue. “Getting out on the water is a great way to beat the summer heat, but now more than ever we want to make sure that people stay healthy and safe.”
MountainTrue is encouraging people to continue practicing social distancing, especially in crowded parking areas and popular swimming holes. “If you’re going to be in proximity of other people, especially for an extended period of time, you really should be both staying 6 feet away from other people and wearing a mask.”
While COVID-19 virus is a novel threat this summer, the Riverkeepers want to remind area residents to not forget to check E. coli bacteria levels. Each Thursday afternoon throughout the spring, summer and fall, MountainTrue’s Riverkeepers release new, up-to-date bacteria testing results for our region’s most popular streams and recreation areas. Results are posted to the Swim Guide mobile app and website at theswimguide.org.
“We get a lot of storms throughout the summer,” explains French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “And that stormwater runoff can cause significant spikes in the amount of E. coli and other harmful bacteria in our waters.”
E. coli bacteria makes its way into our rivers and streams from sewer/septic leaks and stormwater runoff – especially runoff from animal agricultural operations with substandard riparian buffers. E. coli can also indicate the presence of other more harmful microbes, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, and norovirus. Contact with or consumption of contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. The most commonly reported symptoms are stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and low-grade fever. The Swim Guide lists each testing site as either passing or failing according to the EPA limit for E. coli in recreational waters of 235 cfu (or colony forming units) per 100 milliliters.
Samples are collected on Wednesdays, processed using the Idexx system and results are analyzed and posted on Thursday afternoons. Results are available on the Swim Guide website (theswimguide.org) or on the smartphone app, available for Android and Apple iphones.
“We do testing mid-week, analyze the results, and get them to the public in time for the weekend,” explains Broad Riverkeeper David Caldwell. “These tests are a snapshot in time. If we test on a Wednesday after a dry spell, our results usually look pretty good, but conditions can change rapidly following heavy rains. Take precautions if you see that the water is running high and muddy. Do not ingest or expose any open cuts or abrasions to muddy water.
“Rivers closer to densely populated areas or industrial farming like parts of the French Broad and Broad River can really be affected by even a modest amount of rain,” explains Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill. “But on either the Green or Watauga Rivers, it really takes heavier storms or extenuating circumstances like a broken sewer pipe to trigger hazardous conditions.”
In general, waterways that are located in more remote areas or near protected public lands that lack a lot of agriculture, development, or industrial pollution sources are the cleanest and will be less affected by stormwater runoff. Areas closer to development and polluting agricultural practices are much more heavily impacted.
“Our rivers are a really important resource for our region and they’re treasured by the people who live here.” says Hartwell Carson. “If we want to clean up the dirtiest rivers and protect the cleanest ones, we need to act to increase buffers, encourage better building and farming practices and invest in upgrading aging sewer infrastructure to meet current and future needs.”
In an effort to raise public awareness and tackle the common sources of E. coli bacteria pollution, MountainTrue’s Riverkeepers have launched a campaign at ILoveRivers.org where you can take action and champion reforms at the federal, state and local levels that will reduce the amount of bacterial pollution in our rivers and streams.
MountainTrue is Western North Carolina’s premier advocate for environmental stewardship. We are committed to keeping our mountain region a beautiful place to live, work and play. Our members protect our forests, clean up our rivers, plan vibrant and livable communities, and advocate for a sound and sustainable future for all residents of WNC. MountainTrue is home to the Broad Riverkeeper, French Broad Riverkeeper, Green Riverkeeper, and Watauga Riverkeeper — the protectors of their respective watersheds. www.mountaintrue.org
About Waterkeeper Alliance:
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates around the world, focusing citizen advocacy on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. Waterkeepers patrol and protect over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. For more information please visit: www.waterkeeper.org