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News 13 Investigates: Waste in our waters

The Trash Trout project recently installed in Mud Creek. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

The French Broad is the third oldest river in the world. Thousands take in its beauty by boat every year.

But if you look around from the water, you may see it's less scenic side - thousands of pounds of garbage.

THE PATH OF TRASH

News 13 followed a cleanup group with Asheville Greenworks down the French Broad River to see exactly how much trash they would find.

Volunteers quickly found several tires along with bottles, cans, and junk.

We also saw what's called historic trash, like rusted appliances, that have been sitting in the river for years.

Eric Bradford is the director of operations for Asheville Greenworks. He says while the river seems to be getting cleaner, it still has a long way to go.

"As more people come to the river and are recreating, they are telling us what they see out there, now they are actually interacting with the trash that's in the river and they don't want to be a part of that," said Bradford.

Asheville Greenworks organizes volunteer groups almost every day of the week. Some kayak down the river picking up trash, others set up on the side the road, doing the same thing.

"This road is right next to the French Broad River, all the trash on it is actually going to get swept into the river once it rains," said Kate Nelson.

Nelson is the Americorp volunteer coordinator for Asheville Greenworks. She says so far in 2017, volunteers have pulled nearly 42,000 pounds of trash from the French Broad River and its surrounding roads.

Nelson drove us down side streets where you can almost always find garbage that was just tossed onto the road.

"You'll see people's household trash just thrown on the side of the road, off of main roads," said Nelson.

UNDERSTANDING THE WATERSHED

Michael Huffman walks the waters in Hendersonville often. He's also looking for trash.

He showed us a pile of junk, including four tires and several rusted bicycles that he pulled out of a stream in just a couple of hours.

Huffman is the city's stormwater quality specialist and believes the problem falls back on the public simply not understanding where their litter ends up.

"The majority of people don't realize that the storm drains we have those go straight into the stream, they don't go to a treatment facility," said Huffman.

He believes the part of the answer is education, teaching the public that every piece of trash eventually ends up in our waterways.

THE RIVER IS GETTING CLEANER

But what about the dangers we can't see.

Heath White grew up on the French Broad River and says it's clear that the water is healthier.

"The French Broad River is the cleanest it's ever been, the French Broad River is in great shape right now," said White.

White owns Zen Tubing but says this isn't about his business, instead of the reputation and rebound of the river he calls a friend.

"The river is good to go, you can get in it, play in it, you'll be fine."


Date from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality seems to support his perspective.

Their samples show that the indicator for bacteria has dropped significantly, from 225 in 2013, to 47 in 2014.

Their data also shows portions of the river labeled impaired by things like bacteria and turbidity have dropped from more than 90 miles in 2008 to just 12 miles last year.

PARTS OF THE RIVER CAN STILL BE UNSAFE

But Hartwell Carson, the Riverkeeper, has a different view and warns that the waters aren't always safe.

"The goal of the Clean Water Act was to have all waters swimmable and fishable, we aren't there yet, but we've come a long way," said Carson.

He agrees that the river is cleaner than it used to be, but says testing shows that there are still issues.

Carson's team takes weekly samples that are used for a swim guide. The results are published on an app and a website and tell the public which sections meet EPA standards.

He admits the data is simply a quick snapshot of a body of water that's constantly moving.

"The data is what the data is when it says it's not safe, it means it's not safe at that given time," said Carson.

The non-profit Environmental Quality Institute does their own testing, and their results show the river could be getting worse.

Their trained volunteers analyze samples calculating water pollution.

Over the past five years their figures show that at the site closest to downtown, Jean Webb Park, the rating on the French Broad has dropped from average to below average.

ONE SOLUTION

No matter what the numbers say, Asheville Greenworks believes they've found one to help get our waters cleaner.

After working on the project for a year and a half, they just installed a device to catch trash in Mud Creek.

"It's going to trap trash as it floats down mud creek, it's the first of it's kind to be installed in North Carolina," said Bradford.

It's one answer to a problem facing the whole community, keeping waste out of these waters.

According to the Department of Environmental Quality, has been upgraded to a "B" classification, which is better than a "C".

We should note there is no "A" rating.


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