Lake James Environmental Association 2019 meeting photo

Todd Bell, president of the Lake James Environmental Association, speaks to a large crowd at the Catawba Brewing Company.

The Catawba Brewing Company in Morganton was filled to capacity on Jan. 14 as members of the Lake James Environmental Association held their annual meeting.

Todd Bell, president of LJEA, explained how the organization got started back in 1973.

“(LJEA was) founded by a few local citizens who were concerned about a very poorly designed wastewater treatment plant that was supposed to go on the Catawba River above the lake,” Bell said. “Through a very hard-fought effort, they were successful in keeping that wastewater treatment plant from being built. For the last 46 years, they stayed together as Lake James Environmental Association, looking for and breaking down issues that can impact the watershed.”

LJEA helps with trash pick-ups around Lake James and tests the water in the lake regularly. Members also conduct “bottom mapping” programs that monitor silt and sedimentation in the lake.

“In late 2017, we started noticing things happening in the watershed,” Bell said. “There’s a lot more development. We’re seeing more trash coming down the tributaries in McDowell County into the lake. We reached out and formed a coalition with three of the colleges around here — Warren Wilson (College), Appalachian State University and UNC-Asheville — and asked them to give us some guidance on where we go next.”

Coalition members decided to produce a “full watershed assessment to determine what their strategy would be for the next 10 years.”

The 2018 State of the Lake James Watershed assessment took all of last year to complete, Bell said. The report is available online at and is organized into seven different sections:

» Chemical Analysis of Water Quality

» Biological Survey

» Erosion and Sedimentation

» Land Cover Analysis

» Trash Assessment

» State of the Fishery

» Survey of Public Opinion

The report shows that overall, the watershed is in good shape.

“It’s a pristine place to have a watershed,” Bell said. “There’s about 247,000 acres in the Lake James watershed. Eighty-three percent is forested. We don’t have a whole lot of major industry above us. We have some, but some of those industries are good stewards of the watershed. Baxter, McDowell County’s largest employer, just put online back in the middle of 2017 a $25 million wastewater treatment plant on the north fork of the Catawba River, and it’s made a difference. We test that water every month, and we see a difference there.”

LJEA has participated in the Environmental Quality Institute’s Volunteer Water Information Network for the past 18 years, which consists of 146 streams across eight counties in western North Carolina.

“If you average the north fork, the Catawba River and the Linville River, we score about 81 out of 100, and if you stack-rank our score of 81 out of the 146 streams, it ranks somewhere around 41,” Bell said. “On a scale from poor to excellent, our water rates as good. But we shouldn’t be happy with that, (because) we don’t have a lot of the issues these other streams are dealing with. We have plenty of work to do in this area.”

Recommendations outlined in the assessment for focusing future efforts include erosion, sedimentation and trash management.

“Sedimentation is the No. 1 polluter of streams and lakes in North Carolina,” Bell said. “Sedimentation can trap things like bacteria, nutrients and chemical pollutants. It’s bad for wildlife, it’s bad for our watershed and it’s bad for us when we swim in the water. A lot of you have been out there on Sundays at the lake and seen the water all kicked up. That’s not good.

“The reason we need to focus on this is (because) there is more development. We see it going on all around us. We don’t want to stop development, but we want to make sure development is done correctly, so we don’t have sedimentation.”

Trash also is an ongoing problem. The watershed report states that Lake James is “overwhelmed” with trash, especially from the McDowell County side. Decreased federal and state funding for cleanup efforts makes the issue even worse.

“It’s not just because of the rain events that you see more trash in the lake this year,” Bell said. “There are definitely things going on in McDowell County that are increasing the trash coming down the streams.”

He said another problem they have noticed is invasive fish species.

“Since 2008, four invasive fish species have been introduced to Lake James,” Bell said. “This has had a devastating impact on some of the game fish that people come from miles around to fish in Lake James for.”

Bell elaborated in a later interview.

“I think there is suspicion that some of the (invasive) fish made their way to our lake in live wells of fishing boats,” he said. “Some may have been used as bait.” 

An invasive aquatic plant called Yellow Floating Heart also has been discovered at the lake. Representatives from Duke Energy, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and the Department of Agriculture Weed Specialists are trying to eradicate it with an aquatic herbicide, with the cooperation of the land owner.

“Yellow Floating Heart plant made its way to the U.S. as a ‘decorative plant,’ and could have made its way to Lake James on a boat propeller or by someone introducing it to a pond close by as a ‘decoration,’” Bell said.

The watershed assessment is interactive, giving readers the opportunity to share feedback and ask questions, which Bell encouraged attendees to do. He asked people in the community to consider getting involved with the organization. Member dues are $25 per year for an individual or $50 per year for a family.

He said they especially need volunteers who would consider serving on the LJEA board, talking to people in government about issues impacting the watershed or promoting the organization through innovative public relations efforts and social media channels.

“This is going to be a monumental effort, some of the things we want to take on,” Bell said. “Just doing the watershed plan is huge. It’s going to take grants, and it’s going to take the cooperation of the community and state, local and federal government.”

Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily newsletter.