The French Board River Revitalization

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Waterways are at the top of the endangered natural resources list.

Today the French Board River waterway is utilized by paddlers, fisherfolk, sightseers, and countless other outdoor enthusiasts. Natives point to it with pride, and there’s talk going around of turning parts of the river into a source of water for the Asheville area. To stand on its bank and gaze out over the vast expanse of beautiful, flowing water, you’d never guess that this river was once so severely polluted that the same folks who brag on it today once called it an “open sewer.”

Twenty years ago the French Broad was used as a veritable flush toilet for all manner of environmental unmentionables, from industrial and agricultural wastes to raw city sewage, discarded livestock carcasses, and junked cars. Back then, the stench alone was enough to turn picnickers and paddlers away. And sadder still was the fact that many fish that are native to the river, such as the muskie, had all but died out.  

So what happened? How did the French Broad change from a reeking sewer to a relatively healthy, stable waterway? Well, for one thing, back in 1972 the Clean Water Act was passed, and it put a lot of restrictions on the industries and sewage systems that were dumping wastes into rivers nationwide. But, more specifically, several groups in Western North Carolina–including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Land-of-the-Sky Regional Council, and informal groups of concerned citizens–combined forces to clean up the long-neglected waterway. Their efforts paid off in a clean and pleasing river. What’s more, the muskie have returned!

Don’t go away yet; the story is not quite over. This past fall the regional council enlisted the help of a newly formed nonprofit citizens’ organization called the French Broad River Foundation, Inc. The foundation is modeled after similar tax-exempt river revitalization groups in other parts of the state (most notably the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River in Durham). Its growing membership consists of livery owners, outfitters, local government officials, college professors, and other people who value the French Broad as an important natural resource for Western North Carolina.  

FBRF’s goals are “to work toward the preservation and improvement of the river’s water quality, fish, and wildlife … to improve its potential for recreation … to encourage and assist in the formation of community-based ‘streamwatch’ groups in the river’s tributary watersheds … and to educate the public about the river. ” To date, the foundation is most visible activity is its participation in an annual event called French Broad River Week. This is seven rollicking days of fun occurring in the fall, dedicated to picking up trash in and around the river. In addition, there are photo contests, raft races, nature hikes, slide shows and lectures about the river, and much more! During this week liveries and outfitters in the river basin donate equipment, time, staff, and shuttle services. For example, one outfitter advertised, “Have a good time while doing something worthwhile for the community on this free whitewater rafting river cleanup trip from Barnard to Hot Springs. All equipment, guides, transportation, and beverages will be provided by the Nantahala Outdoor Center. ” This outfitter is one of the biggest in the Southeast.

The story of the French Broad River is a happy one, and one that weekend paddler and livery owner alike can learn from. All across the country nonprofit organizations like the FBRF are cropping up (if there’s not one in your area, perhaps you should start one!), and each one of them is in need of active members. It’s no secret that our waterways are at the top of the endangered natural resources list (ahead of forestland!) … so it’s up to everyone who enjoys and utilizes them to see to their health and well-being. If you want to enjoy nature, you’ve got to help take care of it, too.  

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