ASHEVILLE — Stream flows in the French Broad River have reached their lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1895 and likely will continue to drop as the region's drought drags on.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported Sunday that the river at Pearson Bridge in Asheville was flowing at a rate of 121 million gallons a day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
That rate falls well below the median stream flow of 781 million gallons a day for this time of year and below a previous low of 139 million gallons a day measured in 2002.
"I've been working in river programs for 27 years, and I've never seen the river this low," said Bill Eaker, environmental services manager for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.
Low stream flows are hurting businesses in the region. Commercial rafting companies have cut trips, and water utilities have established conservation measures. In addition to the lack of rain, groundwater systems never recovered from last year's drought.
The state lists nearly the whole region as in an exceptional drought, the most severe classification. Asheville's rainfall this year is 10 inches below normal.
At this rate, it would take about one and a half times normal rainfall from now to January to end the drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"I can't predict the weather, but if conditions persist, [stream levels are] going to stay low," said Jerad Bales, director of the N.C. Water Sciences Center.
Low water can bring a host of problems for the French Broad, a river seen by some as a symbol for Western North Carolina.
With less water, pollution from industries and other entities that discharge into the water is at higher concentrations. Water temperatures also have been increasing.
"People don't know too much about how rivers respond to drought," Bales said. "What is happening now is everything that lives there is being squeezed into a smaller and smaller space. The less water there is, there is less oxygen in the water, and the fish are going to be stressed because of that."
Water quality in the French Broad deteriorated when it was used as a dumping ground for raw sewage as the region's population and its industry grew, but the river was cleaned up after the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.
The river levels also are hurting tourism. For the first time in more than 25 years, the Nantahala Outdoor Center decided last week to stop actively selling rafting trips on the French Broad. It also has cut back on trips on the Chattooga River.
"It was just getting lower and lower and lower. It was just getting to the point where it was obvious that the river was handicapped," Nantahala Outdoor Center spokesman Charles Conner said. "It's just not a river trip we want to sell to these people."
Conner said the company will feel a sting, as will French Broad Rafting Expeditions, a small company out of Marshall that is now running inflatable one-person boats instead of the larger rafts. The change leads to fewer numbers of people per trip.
"It will end up being a tough summer," owner Michael Hampton said.
French Broad riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said local governments need to start talking about ways to plan for increased water use and how they can work together to make sure water is evenly distributed around the region.
"If now is not the right time to be looking at long-term solutions, then I don't know what is," Carson said. "If the lowest levels of water ever can't raise people's awareness, then I don't know what will."
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