Bubbles pop up in Watauga River
by Kellen Moore
An unusual sight greeted Blowing Rock resident Michael Chittum on Sunday as he descended Grandfather Mountain on the Profile Trail: thick, foamy bubbles in the Watauga River.
"When I first got down there, I didn't notice anything," he said. "It was a few feet before I started noticing white foam. All of the sudden, it was like a washing machine."
In some portions of the river, accessible from N.C. 105, bubbles had accumulated to more than a foot high, he said.
Concerned, Chittum said he drove up N.C. 105 to try to locate the source of the foam, finding more thick bubbles at a drain pipe upstream and at a culvert near The Shoppes at Tynecastle in Banner Elk.
It was enough to concern him about the environmental impact and tip off the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper to the problem.
"That's an unnaturally large amount of foam," Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby said. "This is not natural, so it concerns me greatly."
Linsenby said she couldn't tell from the photographs Chittum provided whether the bubbles had a rainbow sheen that might indicate whether the substance was soap.
"Typically, sewage foam or industrial chemical foam is brownish, and that was really white, relatively clean foam," she said.
In some cases, soap can affect the ability of fish to pull oxygen from the water, but it would take "a whole lot of soap" or frequent introductions of soap, Lisenby said. Chittum said he did not see any dead fish or damage to other aquatic life.
Lisenby said she planned to visit the affected area and make attempts to find the source of the bubbles. Other than that, there isn't much that could be done aside from reminding residents not to dump anything into the rivers, she said.
Lisenby said the presence of foamy bubbles in the water happens far more often than she would like.
"There are still old mountain houses that have their washing machines straight-piped into one of the little tributary creeks, so it's actually a common call," she said.
Lisenby recommended that anyone who sees a suspected environmental hazard to call the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper at (704) 277-6055 at any time, day or night.