New River could rise in classification
The North Fork of the New River is under consideration for a classification upgrade that could help protect waters by adding more restrictions and buffers on adjoining land.
The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) is considering the reclassification, which would designate the river and its tributaries as Outstanding Resource Waters.
Only a small portion of north Watauga County is in the North Fork watershed, with headwaters emanating from Elk Knob in Meat Camp and heading through Pottertown toward the Ashe County border and Creston. The proposal doesn't affect the South Fork watershed or the town of Boone's plan to construct a new water-intake facility.
According to NCDENR's reclassification proposal, the Outstanding Resource Water classification is intended to protect unique and special waters having excellent water quality and being of exceptional state or national ecological or recreational significance.
To qualify, waters must be rated Excellent by the Division of Water Quality and have one of the following outstanding resource values: 1) outstanding fish habitat and fisheries; 2) unusually high level of water-based recreation; 3) some special designation such as N.C. or National Wild/Scenic/Natural/Recreational River, National Wildlife Refuge; 4) important component of state or national park or forest; or 5) special ecological or scientific significance such as rare or endangered species habitat, research or educational areas.
George Santucci, director of the National Committee for the New River, said the proposed designation was the highest and marked the river's health and water quality. He said the committee supports the designation.
"It has really great aquatic life," Santucci said. "They've been doing studies in the North Fork on the fish and aquatic life."
The waters have "excellent water quality," according to NCDENR's most current 2008 and 2009 benthic macroinvertebrate sampling. The waters have several records of State and Federal special concern species, the Hellbender Salamander and the Spike Freshwater mussel.
"We think it would be a really great thing for the river to be designated that way," Santucci said. "The Ashe County government supports it as well as environmental groups. It's good marketing to acknowledge the river has that high-quality water and has great fish and aquatic species."
The reclassification would bring added regulations in the expansion of buffers from waterways to 30 feet, some impact on the amount of impervious surface allowed in development, and a required lot size of at least one acre for development along the North Fork. The designation would require stormwater retention systems for larger developments. It would also place tougher permitting restrictions on any wastewater or commercial discharge into the river.
"The proposed ORW reclassified area is relatively undeveloped and mostly forested with a small amount of farmlands and residences," the NCDENR report says. "Approximately 325 miles of named waterbodies exist in the subject watershed, and the watershed itself measures 159,342 acres."
Forestry, crop and agriculture activities will not be affected by the proposed regulation. There are four wastewater facilities already in the proposed area, with no new ones currently under consideration.
NCDENR is holding a public hearing on the proposed change at Ashe Family Central in Jefferson on Feb.1. Written comments are due by March 16, with a decision expected by July 1.