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Tackling the "#1 Threat" to the French Broad: Stormwater Runoff

A proposed city fund would pay for upgrades to its aging stormwater sewer system, one of several new initiatives to reduce pollution and other damage done by rain runoff.

by Dan Dewitt | May 24, 2024 | Published in Brevard News Beat

restored stretch of Norton Creek
Newly restored stretch of Norton Creek, west of downtown Brevard

BREVARD — For as long as Wesley Shook can remember, big rains filled Norton Creek with a slurry of red mud.

The overflow regularly spilled onto the creekside basketball court at Brevard’s Silversteen Park, and flooding from Norton occasionally forced the closure of nearby Cashiers Valley Road, said Shook, the city’s public works director.

But that was before a city contractor built a gradual slope between the creek and the playground, before it armored this bank with boulders and coconut-fiber mesh, before it planted maples and dogwoods to hold the soil in place.

And that was before the company established, in a low plain across the creek, a thick stand of tall grass that both allows runoff to gradually seep into the aquifer and filters it as it flows back into the streambed, which is now lined with smooth stones rather than mucky sediment.

During the several storms that have hit the city in the eight months since the completion of this restoration project, Shook said, neither the court nor the road has flooded. And though the creek becomes “dingy” after heavy rains, he said, “it’s not all just red mud.”

No actions by the  city — or for that matter, any owner of property along the French Broad River or its tributaries — can do more to benefit the river than such projects that contain and purify storm runoff.

Soil from eroded banks. Petroleum and other pollutants from pavement. Bacteria from livestock, septic tanks and the city’s aging wastewater treatment system. It all flows into the French Broad after heavy rains, contributing to the elevated levels of E. coli in the river throughout Transylvania County and to the state’s classification of a 19-mile stretch of the river downstream from the county as “impaired.”

“Stormwater runoff is the #1 threat to the health of the French Broad River,” proclaims a banner on the website of the environmental nonprofit, RiverLink.

And unlike eliminating “point-source pollution” — stopping a chemical discharge from one, easily identified tannery or paper mill — stemming this “nonpoint source pollution” will require alterations throughout the river’s watershed.

Fortunately, there are new efforts to make this happen:

  • RiverLink has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the damage done by urban runoff and offer property owners low-cost methods of slowing its flow from roofs, driveways and manicured yards.

  • Adding to a variety of public and private bank-stabilization funds available to rural property owners, the state earmarked $2 million last year to help farmers in the river’s basin to seal off banks from livestock, a significant cause of erosion and bacterial contamination.

  • Brevard’s proposed budget includes a new assessment to create a dedicated stormwater fund, allowing the city to systematically upgrade its ancient storm sewers and restore its miles of eroded streambanks.

Besides boosting the health of the river — a centerpiece of the region’s outdoor recreation economy — work paid for by the new city fund would protect roads and yards prone to flooding and sinkholes. And it will help prevent inundations of Brevard’s sanitary sewer system that regularly carry untreated sewage into the French Broad after heavy rains.

The proposed stormwater assessment was one of a series of new or increased fees — including a two-cent bump to property taxes — that prompted pushback from residents and elected leaders at Monday’s City Council meeting.

But there was no mention of the new stormwater fund. Maybe because it’s too important.

“I think it’s overdue,” said longtime City Council member Mac Morrow, who in the 1970s directed a county river restoration initiative.

“Being a river city on the French Broad, in this beautiful sylvan valley, brings with it a responsibility for local governments to do all they can to keep that river as pristine as it can be.”

Brevard’s Runoff

unoff during a flood of the French Broad River
Sediment-rich runoff during a flood of the French Broad River in January

Actually, the French Board isn’t truly pristine anywhere in Transylvania, not even at Rosman’s Champion Park, near its headwaters. Elevated levels of E. coli were recorded in about half of the weekly tests of river water conducted there last summer by the Mountain True environmental group.

Which means that improved stormwater containment is badly needed even in rural areas. But it’s especially needed in Brevard, where the health of the river begins to decline dramatically and obviously.

One indication: the results of Mountain True’s testing of the French Broad downstream from Brevard, at a public access point in Horseshoe, where more than 80 percent of the samples taken by the group last year received failing grades because of E. coli contamination.

And Renee Fortner, RiverLink’s water resource manager, says she can see the degradation on her frequent paddling trips on the river.

“The water’s clear until you get to Brevard,” she said, “and then the clarity of the water goes way down . . . it’s a little bit more murky.”

A closer look, she said, reveals many more signs of “urban stream syndrome,” which as the name implies, is a common condition of rivers passing through cities and is caused by both the content and the volume of rainwater running off roads and parking lots.

This runoff carries contaminants people tend to be aware of, especially petroleum residue, but also ones they might not think about, such as copper from brake linings that is highly toxic to aquatic wildlife.

And because of the large expanses of pavement and other impervious surfaces in and around Brevard, this water flows in powerful surges that “cause erosion to the stream banks,” Fortner said.

Erosion, in turn, deposits sand and soil in the river bed, burying the rocky spawning grounds of trout, shiners and darters, as well as the vegetation that supports the insects they feed upon.

All of which contributes to the end result of rivers passing through urban areas, she said, “lower biodiversity of fish and other aquatic species.”


Then there’s the matter of Brevard’s ancient sewage collection and treatment systems.

Nobody knows the city wastewater system’s exact contribution to elevated levels of E. coli in the river. And the number and severity of sewage spills has trended sharply downwards since 2013, as state grants and low-interest loans have helped Brevard steadily upgrade the pumps and pipes that feed its wastewater treatment plant.

But that plant, in need of a replacement or overhaul expected to cost at least $65 million, struggles to handle the city’s waste even in ideal circumstances, which is why City Manager Wilson Hooper has also proposed a surcharge on “high strength” wastewater emitted by some industries.

And even the upgraded wastewater collection system is vulnerable to what utility experts call “infiltration and inflow,” which is what happens when backups from clogs and seepage from cracked stormwater lines make their way into sanitary sewer pipes.

In the past six months, Shook said, the city has documented a total of seven sewage spills, including four during one especially heavy storm.

“It used to be that we would spill with less than an inch of rain. Now we can hold up to two inches,” Shook said. “If it’s two inches of rain or more, we’re spilling.”

The Plan

Eroded bank of Norton Creek
Eroded or “blown-out” bank of Norton Creek cutting into a residential lawn just upstream from the newly armored section of the stream. This upstream section is also slated for restoration.

Which is one reason Hooper proposed the new stormwater assessment at a city budget presentation earlier this month.

This would essentially create a new stormwater utility, said Mary Roderick, planning director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, which helped the city develop the plan.

Such utilities are typically formed to meet state stormwater permitting requirements for cities that have populations larger than 10,000 or are part of a metro area. Though Brevard, home to about 8,000 people, hasn’t yet met this threshold, it’s getting close, she said.

And the need to address stormwater is especially acute in Brevard, Hooper said in his presentation, because the city receives more than 70 inches of rain annually and is the largest municipality in the state’s wettest county.

“It’s  a very sensible move on the part of the city,” Roderick said of the proposed assessment. “They’re being proactive . . . getting ahead of what will be required of them.”

If the plan is approved as part of the next fiscal year’s budget, owners of lots with less than 7,000 square feet of roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces — including almost all the city’s single-family homes — would pay $4 a month.

The assessment would climb to $15 monthly for parcels containing between 7,000 and 250,000 square feet of such surfaces, and to $150 per month for properties with the largest roofs and parking lots, including Transylvania Regional Hospital and Ingles Market.

The $244,000 generated the first year would mostly go to update of the city’s last Master Stormwater Study, completed by the McGill Associates engineering firm in 2007.

This fund would then allow the city to finance loans or match grants needed to systematically take on the massive task of upgrading a system that includes 270 catch basins (depressions in lines designed to hold debris) and more than 28,000 feet of underground pipe, Hooper said in his presentation.

Though McGill did not pin down the system’s age, it noted that most of its structures were built of brick rather than pre-cast concrete, “evidence that the vast majority of the system is very old.”

Most of its features still work just fine, or at least they did 17 years ago, the study said, but even then the estimated cost of needed upgrades was $12.4 million.

Current costs will no doubt far exceed that amount, as demonstrated by the prices of recent stormwater projects, including the ongoing work to contain runoff at downtown’s Times Arcade Alley, a job budgeted at $1.1 million, most of it coming from federal and private grants.

The city is setting aside $72,000 for its 50 percent share of a second phase of the Norton project, which will straighten and stabilize a heavily eroded 70-foot stretch of the creek that is cutting into a bankside lawn and dumping soil downstream into the newly bolstered 500 foot-stretch of the creek.

For that main phase of the project, the city received a $95,000 grant that was intended to cover half its cost.

It didn’t come close, said Dean Luebbe, the city’s finance director/assistant city manager.

 “We thought the project was going to be $190,000, but it ended up being something more like $450,000,” he said. “The city ended up spending a lot more money out of pocket than we thought we would.”

“Living in a Swamp”

Brevard Public Works Department at a sinkhole caused by a failing sewer line
Wesley Shook, left, and Cliff Justus, of the Brevard Public Works Department, at the site of a sinkhole caused by a failing stormwater sewer line

After showing off this project last week, Shook and Public Works Supervisor Cliff Justus continued their tour to demonstrate how much more work still needs to be done.

They stopped at the vertical banks of “blown-out” creeks — the term for channels of raw, eroded earth — and a section of road that had been washed away after a heavy storm.

Then they walked up the driveway of a home near the corner of Pine and Grove streets partly covered by a framed platform of plywood.

A two-foot wide pipe carrying large volumes of runoff from streets and parking lots near E. Main Street runs through the home’s side yard before making a hard turn under its driveway and front lawn.

Clogs in this section of corroded pipe have created backups that saturate the surrounding soil. And as the water recedes, Shook said, “it pulls all the dirt down with it,” which explains the sinkhole in the driveway and the need to cover it with plywood.

Though Hooper said the city’s responsibility for making a permanent repair here and elsewhere in the system is unclear — a factor that will undoubtedly complicate future upgrades — Shook offered one suggestion for getting this done: sealing the failing pipe with concrete and pumping the flow straight into stormwater lines along the street.

Until that happens, this property will remain on the long list of trouble spots that sends city crews scrambling after heavy rains to make temporary repairs — in this case repeatedly unclogging the pipe under the driveway with a tool that uses jets of water to cut through debris.

“We’ve opened it up about as well as we can,” Shook said.

But whatever the city has done, it’s not enough, said the home’s owner, Betsy Smith.

“It’s the whole system that’s failing, not just my driveway,” she said.

“When it rains, I get a river that goes through my neighbors’ yards and through my side yard,” she said. “The guy who tends my yard found a crawdad up against my house the size of a petite lobster . . . We’re living in a swamp.”

What the Rest of Us Can Do

But the responsibility for addressing runoff does not lie solely with governments, according to the RiverLink website: “We all have an economic interest in keeping our waterways clean and beautiful.”

One of the biggest cumulative sources of runoff in Brevard and other developed areas of the eight-county French Broad watershed is the large and growing number of residential properties, Fortner said.

The annual runoff from just the 100,000 rooftops in Buncombe County, which receives far less rainfall than Transylvania, totals “a staggering 8.6 billion gallons,” the website says, “That’s equivalent to filling over 13,030 Olympic swimming pools!”

RiverLink’s recently launched Reduce Rain Runoff campaign, created in partnership with Land of Sky and funded by sources including the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, directly targets the damage caused by such flows.

The program promotes simple measures such as redirecting gutter downspouts away from city storm sewers and onto lawns or into rain barrels, where it can be held to irrigate lawns and gardens during dry spells.

It also encourages more ambitious property owners to install rain gardens — miniature decorative wetlands that allow runoff to “slowly soak into the ground instead of running off the landscape,” the group’s website says.

People will be more likely to take on such projects if they are made aware of the extent of the damage caused by runoff, Fortner said, and spreading this message is another goal of the program.

“A lot of people just don’t think about it — where that rainwater goes when it hits a hard surface and runs off,” she said. “We’re trying to kind of shift our paradigm on how we manage rainwater in our built environment.”

Though Reduce Rain doesn’t offer financial aid for stormwater projects, rural property owners in Transylvania and three other counties along the French Broad may be eligible to tap into the $2 million set aside last year to bolster the state’s existing Agricultural Cost-Share Program, which has long offered technical and financial assistance to farmers implementing practices that reduce runoff pollution.

The new money specifically adds funding for one of these practices, keeping cattle and other livestock away from all surface waters. The primary goal is to exclude these animals from the French Broad and its tributaries with initiatives such as providing alternate sources of drinking water, including “livestock watering tanks fed by a well,” Jeff Parker, director of the Transylvania Soil and Water Conservation District, wrote in an email.

It could also help pay for fencing to seal off waterways, allowing the establishment of natural buffers.

Cattle not only cause erosion of stream and river banks, said Owen Carson, an ecologist who chairs the Transylvania Natural Resources Council, but contribute to the French Broad’s heavy load of E. Coli contamination.

“That’s a great first step,” he said, “getting the cows out of the water, where they are directly defecating into the river.”

The Reward of Clean Water

Woody Platt on restored bank of the French Broad River
Local musician Woody Platt on newly restored bank of the East Fork of the French Broad River

Rose Jenkins Lane of Conserving Carolina suggested another way to limit runoff damage, a practice easily adopted by owners of both urban and rural land.

“Probably the simplest thing is, just don’t mow to the bank of the river or stream,” she said. “If you can let things grow there, if you get some trees in there . . . that’s going to provide some of that natural filtration and bank stabilization.”

Her organization is also heavily involved in larger efforts — a total of 17 past or current stream and floodplain restoration projects in the French Broad basin, she said.

A prime example: the first phase of a long-term project initiated by well-known local musician Woody Platt, who owns about 30 acres of land along the East Fork of the French Broad near its confluence with the river’s main channel.

The project is nearly complete, he said. And when it is, the end result will be the restoration of about 4,000 feet of the East Fork crossing the land of seven different owners.

“It’s taken a real collection of players,” he said, the first of which was Conserving Carolina. In 2013, the organization secured a $114,000 grant from the North Carolina Land and Water Fund that covered more than half of the first phase’s total cost, according to the Fund’s website.

This work, completed in 2016, addressed “two very, very terribly eroded oxbow” turns in the river, Platt said, building up a section of riverbank about 1,600 feet long that is now protected by a Conserving Carolina easement and held in place with dense stands of brush and trees.

A Winston-Salem-based nonprofit, the Resource Institute, coordinated work and funding on the longer, $478,000 second phase, said Alan Walker, a project manager with the group.

The Institute is able to tap into funds from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Land and Water Fund, Walker said, and “we engage the engineers and hire the contractor and make sure it’s all done from A to Z.”

It doesn’t require large sums of money from landowners to complete these projects, said Platt, a river advocate and avid angler, but “you do have to be interested and willing to get the work done . . . I scratched and scratched and scratched to make this happen.”

Though a major part of that effort was securing the cooperation of nearby property owners, he said, “it’s not really a hard sell when you show people they are losing their land to erosion and degradation.”

So, yes, such projects benefit landowners, Walker said, but mainly “they’re good for the watershed, good for the aquatic habitat, good for the community.”

Better fishing and paddling add to the river’s value as a tourism asset, he said. The work will reduce the impact of floods expected to become increasingly severe in the warming climate. And once established, the planted vegetation will absorb carbon and shade the river, helping to maintain cool water temperatures required for healthy trout populations.

Then there’s the main benefit, which Platt was able to point out Wednesday afternoon while standing on a newly stabilized riverbank — clean water.

Before the start of the last phase of the job, this stretch of the river was “full of tires and sand and trash,” Platt said, “and it was really narrow and channelized.”

Crews cleared the debris, created gradual banks planted with birch and sycamore saplings, and then covered the slopes with coconut-fiber mesh seeded with native grasses and staked down with live dogwood and willow seedlings that will grow and spread over the river.

Down at the water line, trees and brush cleared from the land have been formed into dense piles, offering further protection from erosion and helping support an array of underwater logs and boulders that shape the channel and secure the layers of smooth rocks on the riverbed.

Clear water now runs over these small stones in riffles and plunges over the boulders into deep pools — just as it might have before the river was ever disturbed.

“That’s probably the best part of all of this,” Platt said, looking down from the bank. “Now, we’re sending a really clean stream of water into the French Broad.”

DeWitt, D. (2024) Tackling the ‘#1 threat’ to the French broad: Stormwater runoff, Tackling the ‘#1 Threat’ to the French Broad: Stormwater Runoff. Available at: (Accessed: 27 May 2024).


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