WATAUGA — With High Country swim season right around the corner, the Watauga Riverkeeper and MountainTrue are testing the rivers for E. coli to help inform swimmers.

Watauga Riverkeeper and MountainTrue High Country Regional Director Andy Hill said his organization does weekly testing for E. coli by collecting surface water samples at 16 sites throughout the New, Elk and Watauga River Basin.

“In our certified lab we combine the surface water with a colilert reagent and incubate for 24 hours,” Hill said. “We then analyze the colony forming units of bacteria.”

E. coli is bacteria found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

To keep it simple, Hill said they use a pass/fail system using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline of 235 parts per million. When a test comes back with elevated bacteria, Hill said they continue to test until they find and eliminate the source of the bacteria.

Over the years, Hill said water quality as a whole is degrading across the watershed. However, there have been improvements in areas where his organizations have addressed problems like finding an out of compliance or failing wastewater treatment plant or septic system.

“Once the problem is addressed, water quality improves as the leak has been fixed,” Hill said. “The river is ever changing and results vary widely day-to-day. Our water quality is generally excellent, but pristine water is very vulnerable to pollution. When large amounts of untreated sewage of pollution enter the river it has an almost immediate and devastating impact.”

Hill said community members can help support the swim guide in a variety of ways. During May, community members can round up their purchase at the Mast General Store Annex in Valle Crucis for the river. Community members can also become a MountainTrue member or adopt a swim guide site or become a MountainTrue member. More information can be found at tinyurl.com/y9kesme3.

MountainTrue is an environmental organization working in 23 counties in western North Carolina — including Watauga, Ashe and Avery — with core goals that include working toward sensible land use, restoring public forests, protecting water quality and promoting clean energy.

A donation of $30 will cover costs for staff time, supplies and analysis to help sample a popular recreation area for one week. A $100 donation will help Watauga Riverkeeper sample more than three sites. A business or person can also sponsor a swim guide site for $500.

Hill has a goal to raise $5,000 by May 14 to support this summer’s swim guide E. coli sampling program along the Watauga River.

Hill said community members can help by also supporting local businesses like Boone’s Fly Shop, Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Beech Mountain Resort and High Country Guide Service who also support the river.

When people go swimming when the warm weather hits, Hill said they should check the swim guide, pick up some trash and help “protect the places we share” by becoming a MountainTrue member.

Hill said his favorite swimming holes are Elk River Falls, Watauga Point on Watauga Lake and Guy Ford or Upper Gorge Access Park.

The full swim guide — which also includes historical data — can be found at www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/wautauga-riverkeeper/.

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