Monday numbers: A closer look at the state’s impaired, polluted waters

Monday numbers: A closer look at the state’s impaired, polluted waters

- in Environment, Top Story
Only one river basin in North Carolina, the Savannah, has no waterways on the impaired list. Base map: NCDEQ

If you linked all the miles of impaired streams and rivers in North Carolina end to end, they would extend from the mountains to the sea four times. Add the total acreage of the state’s impaired lakes, reservoirs and estuaries, and the breadth would equal nearly 2,000 golf courses.

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.

Lake Crabtree, for example, is impaired because of a fish consumption advisory; PCBs from a Superfund site upstream — Ward Transformer — have polluted the lake and contaminated the fish. Near the coast, thousands of acres of shellfish growing areas are designated as impaired because of fecal coliform levels. Fecal coliform has also polluted mountain waterways, including parts of Lake Junaluska.

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

There are myriad reasons a waterway can become impaired and unable to serve its purpose. Fecal coliform can leak from septic tanks or run off agricultural fields; mercury can be emitted from coal-fired power plants, then land in the water; PCBs, which, although banned for more than 30 years, linger in the environment.

In some cases, the impairments can be as simple as dirt running off from new housing or commercial developments. But dirt is not harmless. Large sediment dumps can smother fish and prevent them from laying their eggs. They can clog streams and cause flooding, and make it more difficult for water treatment plants to remove contaminants.

In a perfect world, the 303(d) list would be solely scientific. But it can become politicized, with debates over how impairments should be determined. There is also money at stake for those responsible for the pollution. They could be legally required to further limit their discharges to avoid exceeding what’s known as “Total Maximum Daily Loads.” The state bases TMDLs on the severity of the pollution and the uses for the waters. To meet those TMDLs, industry or municipalities or whoever is polluting might have to spend money on upgrades — money they either don’t want to spend or don’t have.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has drafted the 2022 impaired waters list and made it available for public comment. Comments are due by Feb. 22. Email [email protected].

Here’s a look at the extent of impaired streams and rivers in North Carolina. Note this is not a comprehensive assessment of every contaminated water body, just those that are polluted to the extent that their intended use is harmed. (Source: DEQ 303 (d) list documents)

2941.6 — Miles of impaired streams, creeks and rivers in NC (2020), equivalent to 4% of this waterbody type

603,154.9 — Acres of impaired lakes, reservoirs and estuaries  in NC (2020), equivalent to 26% of this waterbody type

276.2 — Total new miles of impaired streams and rivers, proposed (2022) 

99,813 — Total new acres of impaired lakes, reservoirs and estuaries, proposed  (2022)

149.8 — Total miles to be de-listed, proposed

59,230.8 — Total acres to be de-listed, proposed

+126  — Net balance of miles, (proposed minus de-listed) 

+40,582.2 — Net balance of impaired acres

Proposed new additions to the list

Stream/river miles by river basin

15 — Broad  

1.6 — Cape Fear   

2.7 — Catawba  

66.9 — French Broad 

17.8 – Hiwassee 

9.1 — Roanoke 

64.2 – Neuse

36.3 – Tar-Pamlico

62.6 – Yadkin-Pee Dee

Acres of lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, by river basin

525.8 — Lumber  

942.3 — Neuse

62,889.8 — Pasquotank 

33,801 Tar-Pamlico

1,087.9 — White Oak 

567 — Yadkin-Pee Dee

Proposed de-listings

Stream/river miles by river basin

12.3 — Cape Fear

32.5 — Catawba 

9.7 — French Broad   

8.4 — Little Tennessee  

14.3 — Neuse   

1.6 — Roanoke

71 — Yadkin-Pee Dee

Acres of lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, by river basin

797.6 — Cape Fear

8.3 — Pasquotank 

90.8 — Roanoke

49,602.4 —Tar-Pamlico  

7,420 acres – White Oak 

1,320 — Yadkin-Pee-Dee