Overview and History

The headwaters of the French Broad River spill over a 50-foot waterfall in Transylvania County. Known as Court House Falls, the waterfall rushes into a creek that feeds the North Fork, which joins the West Fork near Rosman and eventually the Middle and East forks to form the French Broad.

About half the land surrounding these headwater streams is forested, with much of the basin within the Pisgah National Forest or Pisgah Game Lands. The entire French Broad watershed is characterized by the beautiful, winding river and the views of the mountains. In fact Mount Mitchell stretches 6,684 feet skyward, making it the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River.

The French Broad River Basin drains land in both North Carolina and Tennessee. Besides the French Broad River, the basin includes two other major rivers -the Pigeon and Nolichucky-both of which are tributaries that join the French Broad in Tennessee. The Mills, Davidson, and Swannanoa Rivers are major tributaries of the French Broad River in North Carolina.

Recreation & Aquatic Life

Trout are abundant in the upper reaches of the basin, and many waters have such good quality that the state classifies them as High Quality or Outstanding Resource Waters. Outstanding Resource Waters in the basin include most of the South Fork Mills River, the South Toe River (a Nolichucky River tributary), and Cataloochee Creek and its tributaries (Pigeon River tributaries). Such waters receive extra protection due to excellent water quality and exceptional ecological or recreational significance.

Unique plants and animals also distinguish the French Broad River Basin. It’s the only river basin in North Carolina where you’ll find the 9-inch aquatic salamander called the common mudpuppy or the distinctive turtle known as the Eastern spiny softshell. The Cane River, which feeds into the Nolichucky, contains several rare fish, notably almost the entire state population of sharphead darters, striped shiners, stonecats and olive darters.

The most ecologically significant aquatic area in the basin is the lower section of the French Broad River from the town of Marshall into Tennessee. Numerous fish species found in no other rivers in the area appear here, including the freshwater drum, banded sculpin and mooneye. Two rare aquatic species live in all three watersheds of the French Broad: the hellbender, a large, uncommon aquatic salamander; and the Appalachian elktoe, a freshwater mussel that is federally listed as endangered.

The improved water quality over the years in the French Broad allows the river to now support 97 species of fish species, 26 species of salamanders, 9 turtle species, 5 native mussel species, and 9 native crayfish types.

The French Broad River is quickly becoming known as one of the top smallmouth bass fisheries in the world and it also supports a celebrated muskie fishery. Below Asheville, the river falls and tumbles, creating enough excitement to make “whitewatering” the main economy of Madison County.

There are nine rapids on the 8-mile section of river between Barnard and Hot Springs, but this is only the beginning of one of the top paddling areas in the country. The French Broad Watershed has incredibly scenic flatwater paddling, but also boast hundreds of miles of class II to V whitewater. The Pigeon, Nolichucky, and North Fork are only a few of the rivers and challenge even the best paddlers.

Water Quality

Human activities can negatively impact surface water quality, even when the activity is far removed from the waterbody. With proper management of wastes and land use activities, these impacts can be minimized. Pollutants that enter waters fall into two general categories: point sources and nonpoint sources.

Point sources are typically piped discharges and are controlled through regulatory programs administered by the state. All regulated point source discharges in North Carolina must apply for and obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the state.

Nonpoint sources are from a broad range of land use activities. Nonpoint source pollutants are typically carried to waters by rainfall, runoff or snowmelt. Sediment and nutrients are most often associated with nonpoint source pollution. Other pollutants associated with nonpoint source pollution include fecal coliform bacteria, heavy metals, oil and grease, household chemicals, and any other substance that may be washed off into our streams.

Every person living in or visiting a watershed contributes to impacts on water quality. Therefore, each individual should be aware of these contributions and take actions to reduce them.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 has dramatically improved the water quality in the French Broad Watershed, but there is still significant improvements that need to happen. The French Broad Riverkeeper will be monitoring the sources of pollution and actively working to eliminate these sources.

This graph shows the amount of impaired streams in the North Carolina portion of the French Broad River. Currently over 224 miles of stream are impaired and only 25% are monitored.