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Originally published: 2014-01-30 17:36:24
Last modified: 2014-01-30 17:37:10

Some Watauga waters impaired for fish, insects

by Anna Oakes

Several rivers and creeks in the Watauga County area remain classified as impaired for aquatic life, according to the N.C. Division of Water Resources.


The division publishes the 303(d) list of streams, rivers and lakes that are not meeting state water quality requirements every two years, as required by the federal Clean Water Act. Placement on the list indicates a waterway does not meet water quality standards and that a strategy or plan is required by the Environmental Protection Agency to address pollutants.


The division will accept public comment on the draft 303(d) list through March 13.


Waterways are considered impaired when they do not meet water quality standards or do not support uses such as swimming, shellfish harvesting, drinking water supply or aquatic life.


In Watauga County, four waterways in the New River Basin are identified as impaired for aquatic life, including the South Fork of the New River, the Middle Fork South Fork of the New River, the East Fork South Fork of the New River and Cobb Creek. Beaverdam Creek in the Watauga River Basin is also listed.


The local listings are unchanged from 2012, however, because no new samples were assessed since the 2012 list was published, said Melanie Williams, a division river basin planner for the New, Watauga and other basins. The waterways in these basins were sampled again in 2013, she said, but that data will not be incorporated until the next 303(d) cycle.


Division biologists collect samples at various waterway sites throughout the state and assess them based on various criteria, including biological integrity (or bioclassification). Biological integrity is the ability of an aquatic ecosystem to support and maintain a balanced and indigenous community of organisms similar to that of reference conditions. Five bioclassifications are assigned: excellent, good, good-fair, fair and poor.


Waterways are assessed as impaired for aquatic life when a fish or benthic macroinvertebrate (aquatic insects, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic worms) community sample received a bioclassification of poor or fair or a different water quality standard violation. 


Cobb Creek is included on the list because of turbidity levels, or cloudiness of the water. Sites on the South Fork, East Fork South Fork and Middle Fork South Fork of the New River were rated as impaired because they received a fair bioclassification for benthic macroinvertebrates. Beaverdam Creek was rated as impaired because of a poor bioclassification for fish communities, but the bioclassification is based on a 2004 sample.


Williams said impairment for benthic or fish populations does not mean the water is dangerous for humans.


"If there's any human health issue, it would be noted as a human health impact," she said. "You definitely won't see that in the New or Watauga river basins ... (which are) some of our two healthiest river basins in North Carolina."


The division has between eight and 13 years to develop a plan for impaired waterways that identifies sources of pollution and determines how much pollution should be reduced to protect the stream's water quality.


"However, we highly encourage anyone who is a local champion or stakeholder (to help develop a plan) sooner," said Williams.


The draft 2014 303(d) list is available at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/wq/ps/mtu/assessment, along with a guide and other related documents. Comments should be sent to (andy.painter@ncdenr.gov) by March 13.