• Andy Hill, Waterkeeper Swim Guide
    June 15, 2018

Joining the Swim Guide affiliates program in the spring of 2018, the Watauga Riverkeeper is the key protector and watchdog of the Watauga River Basin in Western North Carolina. In this piece, the Watauga Riverkeeper himself talks about the unique and diverse beauty of the Watauga River Basin.

The Watauga River Basin

Towering peaks, fly fishing, clear mountain streams and year-round scenery are the hallmarks of the Watauga River Basin. The North Carolina portion of the Watauga River Basin includes the headwaters and tributaries of the Elk and Watauga rivers. These two rivers flow northwest into Tennessee, and their waters eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Flowing 126 km (78 miles) through North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee the Watauga River has been a source of life for thousands of years to both Indigenous peoples, and then later to some of the earliest European settlers. The Watauga River is a vital and cherished resource for the region.

Recreationally, the Watauga offers a myriad of activities including canoeing and kayaking, whitewater rafting, and incredible fishing. It is known for rainbow trout, brown trout, and smallmouth bass especially. Native brook trout still flourish in some headwater streams. The Watauga River Gorge offers world class whitewater paddling. The Watauga River Gorge, where the river drops sharply as it enters Tennessee, is one of the most beautiful stretches in the basin. Parts of the basin are traversed by the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and contained within the Pisgah National Forest. The basin includes parts of Watauga and Avery counties and only six incorporated towns, including Banner Elk, Beech Mountain and a portion of Boone. Although the year-round population of this basin is low, the area hosts vast numbers of seasonal visitors.

Photo courtesy of Watauga Riverkeeper

Water Quality and Endangered Species on the Watauga

Overall water quality is excellent—most of the streams flow undisturbed through the forested mountains of the Blue Ridge. The second smallest river basin in the state, the Watauga River Basin makes up in rugged beauty for what it lacks in size. The Watauga River originates on the north slopes of Grandfather Mountain on land protected by The Nature Conservancy. The highest peak along the Blue Ridge Escarpment at 5,964 feet, Grandfather Mountain is considered the most biologically diverse mountain in eastern North America. It is an outstanding example of the globally endangered, high-elevation spruce-fir ecosystem. The mountain’s rare animal residents include the Carolina northern flying squirrel and the Virginia big-eared bat, both federally listed endangered species. Several high-quality mountain bogs through out the basin contain many rare plants and animals, including the bog turtle.

Mountain bogs are a type of wetland that is fast disappearing— nearly 90 percent have been destroyed in North Carolina, and fewer than 150 are thought to remain in the entire Southeast. Mountain bogs are topped with layers of sphagnum moss and saturated with water most of the year. The spongy sinks are natural water purifiers and contribute to the high-quality water at the headwaters of many streams. Several good examples of Southern Appalachian bogs are found in Julian Price Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Eight aquatic animals in the Watauga River Basin are state-listed as endangered, threatened, of special concern or significantly rare. The green floater, a mussel that lives in smaller, slow flowing streams, is considered endangered. The banded sculpin, a threatened fish, is limited to far western Virginia and North Carolina. A large, long-lived salamander, the hellbender, is a species of special concern in the basin and requires monitoring. Several rare aquatic insects—including species of mayflies, stoneflies and a caddisfly— also live here. These insects are so attractive to trout that fly fishermen make artificial lures that look like these creatures. Because mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies have distinct tolerances to pollution, biologists look at their diversity and abundance to gauge the health of streams. Stoneflies are especially sensitive to excess sediment and quickly disappear from polluted waters. These aquatic insects are known as indicator species because they are good indicators of water quality.

Photo courtesy of Watauga Riverkeeper

Protected and Natural Areas

The basin includes 18 miles of state-designated Outstanding Resource Waters along Boone’s Fork Creek that receive extra protection due to excellent water quality and exceptional ecological and recreational resources. More than half of the streams in the basin are classified as trout waters, which means additional treatment is required at wastewater treatment plants. In addition, 25-foot buffers of shrubs and trees must be maintained between trout streams and graded construction sites to filter runoff and prevent erosion. Much of the land disturbance in the basin takes place on steep mountain slopes, which are naturally vulnerable to soil erosion.

Alteration of natural areas may damage or destroy wildlife habitat and harm surrounding waters. As land is cleared, rain and melting snow (stormwater) pick up eroded sediments, pesticides, fertilizers and road salt and carry them to streams and rivers. Runoff of human and animal waste is also a problem. Proper construction and maintenance of septic systems and efficient municipal wastewater treatment are critical to protecting water quality. Responsible management of land activities is also needed to help protect streams and rivers. Many stressors combine to negatively influence water quality. Every person, industry, landowner, town and county influences water quality. A variety of skills, knowledge and talents are necessary to solve water quality problems—which is why it’s so important for many different people, organizations and agencies to pool their resources to protect a community’s natural resources. Join your Watauga Riverkeeper and MountainTrue in protecting this vital resource.

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