Archived Outdoors

WNC's watershed moment: Regional leaders discuss French Broad’s past, present and future

The French Broad River flows north into Tennessee. File photo The French Broad River flows north into Tennessee. File photo

More than 100 people came together to discuss the future of one of the region’s most important resources during the fifth annual French Broad River Partnership  meeting Wednesday, Nov. 8. 

Covering 5,124 square miles, the French Broad River Watershed stretches over seven counties and is home to more than half a million people. It contains pristine mountain streams and impaired urban rivers, its waters flowing through forests and farmlands, tiny towns and bustling cities — where it offers invaluable benefits while facing a diverse set of challenges.

“We’re not just here to talk, we’re here to spark a dialogue that leads to action,” said Jane Margaret Bell, chair of the French Broad River Partnership Steering Committee.

Heart of the city

The Upper French Broad Watershed, which flows from Transylvania County into Hendersonville, through Asheville and north into Tennessee, is flanked by the two smaller components of the overall French Broad Watershed — the Nolichucky Watershed to the east and the Pigeon River Watershed to the west. These rivers form the hearts of the cities through which they flow.

“The first settlers in Haywood County discovered Haywood County, my family was one of them, because of the river,” said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, a speaker on the first of the day’s three panels. “The river brought opportunities. The river brought the paper mill and the jobs and the challenges — and environmental setbacks.”

That’s a reality with which river towns across the nation have increasingly grappled in recent decades. Rivers powered factories, provided transportation and carried away industrial waste, generating wealth for countless communities — and also bearing the brunt of associated pollution. Today, the challenge is to maintain economically healthy cities while also keeping the rivers clean.

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“I always refer to it as preparing a palette for the community to be able to invest in and enjoy,” said Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, speaking of her city’s efforts over the last couple decades to transform its industrial river district “to a new way to experience the river so that everyone can enjoy it.”

In 2009, the city created the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission to create recommendations for development and sustainability on the riverfront. Manheimer cited several projects that have been completed since then, including a public-private partnership with New Belgium Brewing to redevelop the brownfield that once occupied the brewery site, creating stormwater wetlands to improve water quality and building new soccer fields that double as flood mitigation.

The French Broad in Asheville still faces challenges. Pollution from fecal coliform and sediment continues to be a problem, with locations in Asheville consistently testing high for levels of potentially disease-causing fecal coliform bacteria. These issues led the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to place a 19-mile stretch of the French Broad — from Biltmore Park to Craggy Dam west of Woodfin — on its 2022 list  of impaired waterways.

But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Asheville) listed several large grants recently landed by conservation nonprofit MountainTrue, where she is a senior policy advisor and former co-director, that will help identify and address the sources of ongoing pollution.

Flowing toward the future

Also under construction is the story of Canton, whose industrial legacy is barely in the past tense. After 115 years of operation, the paper mill at the center of the town’s geography and identity closed down  this year. The future of the site remains uncertain, as does that of the town itself. This leaves town leaders with a momentous responsibility, a realization that hit Smathers hard as he dropped his son off at preschool the day after the mill closure was announced.

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Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers discusses the ‘Mill Town moonshot’ following the sudden departure of the town’s paper mill. Paul King photo

“It dawned on me that he’s three-and-a-half years old,” Smathers said. “He will not remember the mill. He will not remember the workers. He will not remember the odor. He won’t remember the whistle. But he will remember and judge us on what all of us do with the moment.”

Smathers is all-in on bringing about what he calls the “Mill Town moonshot” — an effort to do something great in Canton that will determine the environmental, economic and cultural future of the whole region. What exactly that effort might consist of is yet to be determined, but it’s likely the Pigeon River  will play a central role. The river defined the town’s past, he said, and now it will bring forth its future.

“The river, the mountains, the decisions that we make will determine our future,” he said.

Those decisions are rarely easy.

Henderson County Manager John Mitchell spoke of the conflicts that often occur when planning land use in the mountains, where the only good land for farming is also the only good land for building homes, which is also the only good land for commercial development.

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Haywood Waterways Association Executive Director Preston Jacobsen Haywood Waterways Association Executive Director Preston Jacobsen (far left) moderates a panel on industry stakeholders in the watershed. Paul King photo

“All the easy decisions have been made, friends,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. When you get up to these types of discussions, there are no solutions, but just tradeoffs. Choices have to be made.”

Right now, Henderson County is grappling with how best to balance these competing priorities, and how best to steward the resources that exist now. Conversations include how to ensure the small wastewater treatment plants scattered around the county are discharging clean water and how to expand housing opportunities while also finding a way to cost-effectively protect key agricultural land from development — and how to elevate the river from being merely a utilitarian tool for agriculture and industry to enhancing quality of life for everybody along its path.  

“We stand on the shoulders of giants that accomplished these things, that created the economic vitality, which pushes this community, but now it’s time to turn our attention to this asset,” he said of the river, “and how it can be used in a recreational way by all people.”

Much done, much to do

Unlike in the early days of the Canton paper mill, environmental laws and public consciousness now seek to protect communities from the ravages of unscrupulous industry . But Michelle Ragland, environmental health and safety manager for airplane engine producer Pratt & Whitney, told the crowd that “industry” does not have to be synonymous with “pollution.” 

“We actually designed the facility to not discharge anything to the municipal sewage district, except sanitary water,” Ragland said. “So that is a major investment in our company because where does treated wastewater go? It goes straight back into the French Broad River. So the best way to make sure that we don’t have an impact on that avenue is to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Ragland said that there isn’t a single floor drain in the 1.2 million-square-foot LEED  Silver-certified facility and that most machines have closed-loop recycling units. On the 100-acre property, complex stormwater and erosion control systems aim to make the property sustainable “for years to come,” with no chemicals stored outside or outdoor transfer operations taking place.

Such measures help ensure that the French Broad Watershed remains an attractive place to live for people who work in the factory — and at the countless other businesses, large and small, across the region — but they also help safeguard the region’s bread and butter industry. That, of course, would be tourism.

The Asheville Tourism Development Authority has a $40 million budget , all of which comes from a tax levied on overnight lodging. People are drawn to Asheville for all kinds of reasons — the music and art scene, nearby national parks and forests, diverse culinary offerings — but the river runs through it all.

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A member of the audience poses a question to the panel. Paul King photo

“I’ve never heard so many people use the phrase that they’ve been drawn to a place,” said Vic Isely, CEO and president of Explore Asheville. “And that is super magical and has resonance.”

A clean, healthy river is just as essential for tourism as it is for the wellbeing of residents. Several panel members reminisced about the French Broad Watershed they knew as children and young adults — and concluded unequivocally that today’s situation is much better.

Clark Duncan, senior vice president of economic development at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, told how his father-in-law, who retired from the Canton paper mill, would strip off his work clothes as soon as he got home each night, and kept a dedicated car for transport to and from work — all attempts to contain the stench of the workday.

“When I grew up in the ‘80s, not many people went in the French Broad River,” said Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Transylvania County TDA. “With animal waste, human waste and just junk that you could find in the river, it really just wasn’t even an option. So when we think back to then, and then you look at it today, there’s part of me that says, ‘We’ve come a long way.’” 

But there’s still much to do.

“All of these counties, all of these entities are built on the backbone of this river,” said Lisa Raleigh, executive director of RiverLink, as she closed out the final panel. “And it is vulnerable. It is fragile … I think it’s so important that we keep her [the river] as a priority. The stakes are high and real, and she deserves better.”

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