A long time coming
The public is two-and-a-half years late learning that a popular area for swimming, rafting and fishing in Jackson County isn’t safe for extended human contact with the water due to high levels of fecal coliform.
High readings of fecal coliform in Scotts Creek and the Dillsboro stretch of the Tuckasegee River were first discovered by the state Division of Water Quality in August of 2005. The public was never notified, however, despite the almost daily swimming, fishing and wading at the confluence of the Tuck and Scotts Creek during summer months.
Who’s to blame for the public not being made aware of the risk is unclear, but it appears the culprit is both a cumbersome bureaucracy and short-handed agencies. The state Division of Water Quality conducts the testing, then supposedly passes the results along to the local health department and leaves it up to them to spread the word or not. But it’s an imperfect system.
In this case, the news came to light only recently when the nonprofit Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River notified local newspapers. County officials in turn learned of the problem from reporters calling for interviews.
The Watershed Association for the Tuckaseigee River, which does its own water sampling, had been trying to sound the alarm for years.
“It’s been known there is fecal coliform in that area for a long time,” said Roger Clapp, director of WATR. As early as 2002, the group posted warning signs of the contamination at Dillsboro Park where rafting outfitters embark on trips down the river. But each time the signs were promptly torn down.
Back then, Clapp relied on water samples taken by his own corps of volunteers. While the volunteer samples are collected using scientific methods and run at a water quality lab in Asheville, they aren’t officially recognized by the state. But Clapp used the data collected by volunteers to convince the state to test the area itself.
The state did so in August 2005. It wasn’t until last month, however, that the waterways were added to the state’s list of impaired waters. When that updated list came out, it was the red flag Clapp needed to finally get some traction with the local press to publicize the problem.
That’s when Charles Stephens, supervisor of environmental health with the county health department, said he first found out about the fecal coliform levels.
“This is something we were not made aware of until the newspapers called us about it,” said Stephens. “That kind of bothers me.”
Stephens was not only in the dark over the results of the testing, but the fact it had been conducted at all, he said.
“Most of my other sister agencies notify me when they come into my county,” Stephens said.
The state Division of Water Quality claims it did tell the Jackson County Health Department about the test results.
“That it is standard operating procedure in such cases,” said Susan Massengale, a spokesperson for the Division of Water Quality.
The state testers say they notified Mack Dendy at the Jackson County Health Department in October 2005, shortly after the samples were collected and analyzed. Dendy was Stephens’ predecessor, but was no longer in that role at the time. He was only working in the office then on a half-time basis.
The delay between the testing and the designation of the waters as impaired isn’t that long, according to Cam McNutt, a state water quality assessment specialist.
“That is a very short amount of time for us,” McNutt said of the two-and-a-half year delay. A data cycle lasts five years, during which testing is conducted across the state. At the end of the cycle, a year is spent updating the list — making a delay of six years possible between the testing and designation.
“There is a little bit of a communication break down in there,” McNutt said. “People have access to this data immediately but it’s a matter of knowing to go look for it. It would be good if there was a mechanism for notifying people immediately.”
There is one person who did know immediately — Roger Clapp with the Watershed Association. Although Clapp had tried to highlight the problem, no one realized he was citing data backed up by official state testing, not just that of WATR’s volunteer corps. It took the official designation as an impaired water to get people to listen, Clapp said.
Whether the health department would have made an effort to let the public know about the risk, like post warning signs at Dillsboro Park, isn’t clear. They don’t seem inclined to do so now (see related story), so perhaps it wouldn’t have made much difference as far as the public is concerned if the health department officials had known earlier.
— By Becky Johnson