Charlotte, NC
70°
Fair
6:40 am8:03 pm EDT
WedThuFri
75°F / 52°F
75°F / 52°F
73°F / 55°F

Troubled waters: DEQ proposes adding 400+ miles of streams, rivers to impaired list

iStock

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
March 21, 2024

By all appearances, the Bogue Sound, a serene, 25-mile stretch of water between the barrier islands and North Carolina’s mainland, is pristine, its emerald glint earning its reputation as a gem of the Crystal Coast.

But in reality, the sound, a major shellfish growing area, teems with bacteria: enterococcus, found in the intestinal tract and feces of warm-blooded animals, like people. Among the sources: the sewer systems and septic tanks at RV parks, beach homes and tourist attractions along the Crystal Coast.

“Wastewater is a big concern of the Coastal Carolina Riverwatch because many of our low-lying coastal areas still depend on septic systems that are old and inundated with groundwater,” said Riley Lewis, the White Oak Waterkeeper, whose basin includes Bogue Sound. “And many of our municipalities have old wastewater infrastructure that can leak or overflow. There are also stormwater issues associated with fecal waste from wildlife, pets and industrial agriculture that can enter these waters and influence bacteria levels.”

Because of high bacteria levels, more than 1,500 acres of the Bogue Sound are proposed for this year’s federal list of impaired waterways, also known as the 303(d).

The 303(d) list, named after a relevant section of the Clean Water Act, is a tally of impaired and threatened waterways, based on their designated uses, such as a shellfish growing area, drinking water supply, or a boating, fishing and swimming spot. In some instances, a waterway is impaired because of turbidity — or too much sediment — often the result of urbanization or land-clearing.

In other cases, high levels of hexavalent chromium and arsenic in fish can place a river or lake on the list; parts of the Northeast Cape Fear could be classified as impaired for that reason.

Statewide, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is proposing to add more than 400 miles of streams and rivers to this year’s impaired list, up from 270 new miles that were placed on the list in 2022.

“It’s such an important document,” said Edgar Miller the Yadkin Riverkeeper, of the 303(d) list. His watershed is one of the state’s largest, encompassing more than 7,200 square miles, including the cities of Winston-Salem, Statesville and Lexington. The Pactiv Evergreen paper mill sits on the Pigeon River in Canton. The mill has discharged pollution into the river for more than 100 years. Parts of the Pigeon River are classified as impaired by state and federal regulators. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Urbanization and development within the Yadkin River Basin have dumped loads of sediment into waterways. In Forsyth County, 300 acres of upland forest was cut for a large housing development, “near a floodplain and right on the river,” Miller said.

In addition to rivers and streams, nearly 7,300 new acres of lakes, estuaries and reservoirs are proposed for the list, a significant drop from the 99,000-plus two years ago. That’s when several large water bodies, like Catfish Lake, were added.

What waters should be placed on the impaired list?

Every two years, each state must submit its proposed 303(d) list for EPA approval; North Carolina’s is due this year.

DEQ is accepting public comments on the proposed list until midnight, April 26. Email comments to TMDL303dComments@deq.nc.gov . DEQ could change the list, based on the public comments it receives. The state then sends the list to the EPA for approval.

Here are the proposed new listings and delistings, plus the full 195-page list of existing and proposed impaired waterways.

For specific listing questions, or to request an assessment fact sheet for a specific waterbody, email Cam McNutt, water quality data coordinator, at cam.mcnutt@deq.nc.gov.

Over time, regulators hope that tightening the limits on discharges from industry, septic systems, and wastewater treatment plants helps heal the waterways. And in some cases, it works: 146 miles and 696,000 acres could be “delisted” because of new data showing the water quality has improved.

Yet the numbers don’t tell the full story. For example, one area of the Newport River is proposed to be delisted for chlorophyll-a, Lewis said, which indicates algal growth. Nonetheless, that same stretch of the river stayed on the list for a different reason: acidic conditions, measured as low pH.

However, DEQ lacks the staff to conduct comprehensive sampling, meaning some data are underreported, Miller said. And for some types of pollution — toxic PFAS, for example — the state has no standards. (DEQ is proposing surface water standards for several types of PFAS to the Environmental Management Commission, which must approve, modify or deny them.)

Environmental watchdogs often conduct their own sampling to nominate a segment of waterway to the list. In the western part of the state, Broad Riverkeeper Dave Caldwell sampled parts of that watershed that wound up on the latest round of proposed listings. In 2021, the previous White Oak Waterkeeper, Becca Drohan, collected data that was accepted by DEQ; the sampled waters are included in this draft of newly listed impaired waters.

The Pee-Dee River and its watershed, which includes Anson and Richmond counties, are often overlooked because the majority of the basin lies within South Carolina. But the entire 40-acre City Lake, a reservoir near Hamlet, is proposed to go on the list.

“That whole watershed needs some TLC real bad,” Miller said.

Below is a basin-by-basin summary of impaired waters, based on DEQ data. Numbers have been rounded. The state’s river basins (Source: NC DEQ)

Broad River Basin

Total stream miles — 1,495
Impaired stream miles —   77
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 5
Total lake/reservoir acres — 1,954
Impaired lake/reservoir acres — 252
Percentage of lake/reservoir acres that are impaired — 12

Proposed changes to impaired waters list 

Additions        Delistings
14.5 miles        5.5 miles
252 acres         1,040 acres

Cape Fear River Basin

Total stream miles — 21,300
Impaired stream miles — 613
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 3
Total acres of lakes/reservoirs and estuaries — 62,888
Impaired acres — 10,245
Percentage of lakes/reservoirs and estuaries that are impaired — 16

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
45.5 miles       37 miles
1,648 acres

Catawba River Basin

Total miles of streams — 3,100
Impaired stream miles — 384
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 12
Total acres of lake/ reservoir waters — 54,363
Impaired lake/reservoir acres — 39,218
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 72%

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
77 miles           18 miles
1,726 acres     32,394 acres (31,000 of these acres on a portion of Lake Norman had been erroneously listed)

French Broad River Basin

Total stream miles — 3,985
Impaired stream miles — 230
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 6
Total acres of lakes — 1,736
Impaired lake acres — 48
Percentage of lake acres that are impaired — 3

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
3 miles             8.5 miles
48 acres         201 acres

Lumber River Basin

Total stream miles — 2,232.5
Impaired stream miles — 54
Percentage of streams miles that are impaired — 2
Total acres of freshwater lakes and saltwater estuaries — 13,271.5
Impaired acres of lakes/estuaries — 3,312
Percentage of lake acres that are impaired  — 25

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
4 miles             None
197 acres         315 acres

Neuse River Basin

Total stream miles —3,409
Impaired stream miles — 506
Percentage of streams miles that are impaired — 15%
Total acres of freshwater lakes and saltwater estuaries — 281,998
Impaired acres of lakes/estuaries — 32,888
Percentage of lake acres that are impaired — 12

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions     Delistings
7 miles          6 miles

New River Basin

Total stream miles — 918
Impaired stream miles —63.5
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 7
No impaired lakes

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions         Delistings
7 miles              None

Pasquotank River Basin

Total stream miles — 2,000
Impaired stream miles —25
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired —  1
Total acres of lakes/estuaries — 918,500
Total acres impaired lake/estuaries —352,315
Percentage of acres that are impaired — 38

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions       Delistings
916 acres        207,127 acres

Roanoke River Basin

Total stream miles — 2,213
Impaired stream miles —46.5
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired —  2
Total acres of lakes/estuaries — 83,107
Total acres impaired — 1,005
Percentage of acres that are impaired — 1

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
91 acres           None

Tar-Pamlico River Basin

Total stream miles — 2,521
Impaired stream miles — 218
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 8.5
Total acres of lakes/estuaries — 667,569
Total acres impaired — 69,537
Percentage of acres that are impaired — 10.5

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
51.5 miles        12 miles
740 acres        450,986 acres

White Oak River Basin

Total stream miles — 223
No impaired stream miles
Total acres of estuaries — 140,014
Impaired acres — 36,408.5
Percentage of acres that are impaired — 26

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
51 miles           103.5 acres
1,640 acres      None

Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin

Total stream miles — 5,863
Impaired stream miles — 249 (Yadkin) 496 (Pee Dee)
Total acres of lakes — 22,988
Impaired acres — 18,170 (Yadkin) 8,329 (Pee Dee)

DEQ data show the number of impaired acres exceeds the total for the basin. This discrepancy had not been resolved by deadline.

Proposed changes to impaired waters list

Additions        Delistings
146 miles         59 miles
40 acres          4,383 acres

Basins with no proposed changes to the list but that have impaired waters

Chowan River Basin

Total stream miles — 1,124
Impaired stream miles  — 38.6
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 3.4
Total acres of lakes/reservoirs 1,787
Total acres of estuaries 16,500
None are listed as impaired

Hiawasee River Basin

Total stream miles — 931
Impaired stream miles  — 48.3
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 5.1
No lakes/reservoirs subject to monitoring

Little Tennessee River Basin

Total stream miles — 2,501
Impaired stream miles — 69.9
Percentage of stream miles that are impaired — 2.7
Total acres of lake/reservoirs — 18,000
Percentage of lake/reservoir acres that are impaired — less than 1

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.