The data is in for the Ivy Watershed's 2022 Water Quality Ratings! Keep reading for an update on the status of the watershed & a look into the monitoring process...
The Ivy Watershed
The Ivy Watershed spans 112 square miles in Madison and Buncombe counties where residents and visitor's rely on its water for agriculture, recreation, and drinking. The Big Ivy sits on the Buncombe side, where water flows down from Pisgah National Forest through Big Ivy Creek. The Little Ivy on the Madison side serves the agriculture heart of the county, collecting water from Paint Fork, Middle Fork, and California Creek. It all meets at the Ivy River before making its way to the French Broad.
Since 2013, Mountain Valleys has worked with Madison and Buncombe Soil & Water to monitor and make improvements to the health of the Ivy Watershed as part of the Source Water Protection Plan (SWPP). This includes conducting monthly chemical monitoring at 18 sites in the Ivy watershed for fecal coliform, pH, alkalinity, turbidity, total suspended solids, conductivity, orthophosphate, ammonia, & nitrates. Check out the maps below for the average Water Quality Ratings for 2015 (left) and 2022 (right).
Both Madison and Buncombe county have shown improvements with 72% of sites (13) receiving a higher score in 2022 than they did in 2015. Half of the sites received average scores or better in 2022, including 4 sites achieving an excellent rating. Many organizations and individuals have collaborated to protect and restore the Ivy, but there is still work to do. The Ivy has 9 sites that do not achieve an average rating; all of which are in Madison county. In addition, it has 4 sites currently on the EPA's 303(d) list, which inventories impaired waters in the state.
Contaminants of Concern
One of the most pressing groups of contaminants in Madison county are actually nutrients. Chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen are essential for all living things and occur naturally in freshwater. Issues arise when they are present in too high of a concentration, leading to excess plant growth and depleted oxygen levels. Nutrient pollution is often linked to animal and human waste and fertilizer contamination in the water. This can come from allowing cattle in streams, failing septic systems, or fertilizing or keeping animals on land with no buffer between the stream.
These same issues can lead to fecal coliform contamination, another problem that is predominant in Madison county. While not itself dangerous, fecal coliform can be an indicator of harmful bacteria, such as E. Coli, or other pathogens. With a high concentration of cattle farms and a underdeveloped septic infrastructure, the Little Ivy must continue to adapt to protect water resources.
Sediment remains an issue of concern. Sediment can effect many aquatic species, like aquatic macroinvertebrates and fish. In fact, the turbidity standard for North Carolina is 50 NTU while the NC trout waters standard is 10 NTU. As the Ivy sees more development, risk increases for sediment pollution. Land cleared for roadways, building, or landscaping leads to increased sediment in runoff.
While the Ivy has many challenges to face, the data shows that improvements are already underway!
We partner with the Environmental Quality Institute to conduct monthly chemical monitoring at all 18 sites in the Ivy watershed. Samples are collected by staff and volunteers who transport them on ice to EQI's lab where analysis begins the same day. While the sample turn around is quick, the data analysis relies on long-term monitoring.
We are not able to gain specific information about any one property, discharge source, or pollution event through this method. However, long-term data gives us information about the average conditions at a site, allowing analysts to estimate an approximate Water Quality Rating. Over the scale of years, this provides data about the overall health of the watershed. We can also combine this with other methods, such as tracking changes in physical conditions and monitoring aquatic species like macroinvertebrates. In the decade since the Source Water Protection Plan was written, EQI has compiled thousands of data points on the physical, biological, and chemical conditions of the Ivy Watershed; check out all of the data here.
One of the most important uses of this data is for watershed planning. Using this information, we can focus our work where it is most needed. We can also identify serious contaminants of concern and then target them on a watershed-wide scale.
The Ivy Going Forward
Mountain Valleys is continuing to work towards getting the Ivy Watershed off of the 303(d) list and is confident that we will keep seeing improvements in the data. Have a stream on your property? Mountain Valleys and the Ivy River Partners have resources available to assist you! Initiatives include native plant stream buffer restoration, septic infrastructure improvements and implementing agricultural BMPs such as fencing cows out of the creek and roofing high use areas. Get in touch for more information!