A river basin catches all the water flowing downhill into streams and creeks and, eventually, sends it out to sea. In Western North Carolina, there are nine basins split by the Eastern Continental Divide, five draining to the Gulf of Mexico (New, Watauga, French Broad, Little Tennessee, and Hiwassee) and four (Yadkin, Catawba, Broad, and Savannah) draining to the Atlantic Ocean. These basins contain the headwaters of streams and rivers which provide a critical supply of fresh water to towns and cities in and outside of the region.
The nine WNC river basins drain about 7,500 square miles in Western North Carolina. The New River, in the northeast corner of the region, is thought to be one of the oldest in the world. The largest basins in the region are the French Broad and the Little Tennessee, both of which flow north/northwest into Tennessee.
The region’s river basins have some of the most outstanding and diverse aquatic systems within the state. However, the health of these systems is threatened by human actions such as pollution, impoundments, and poorly mitigated land management activities. Mussels, crayfish, snails, salamanders, and many species of freshwater fish such as native brook trout are at risk due to poor water quality and altered hydrology. The region has always had a bountiful supply of fresh water for residential, commercial, and industrial use; however, recent droughts have increased awareness of the need for water conservation.
WNC River Basins
Hiwassee River Basin
The Hiwassee River basin drains 641 square miles of Clay and Cherokee counties. The Hiwassee is located in the homeland of the Cherokee, flowing generally to the northeast into the Tennessee River. The basin is about 70 percent forested, 23 percent agriculture, 3 percent urban, and is predominantly in private ownership. Its two major tributaries, the Nottely and Valley rivers, feed scenic, man-made lakes including the Apalachia, the Hiwassee, and the Chatuge.
Little Tennessee River Basin
The Little Tennessee River basin encompasses about 1,800 square miles in Swain, Macon, Clay, Graham, Jackson and Cherokee counties. More than half of the land within the basin is federally owned, much of it located in the Nantahala National Forest (including the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness) and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The basin also drains portions of the Cherokee reservation. The Little Tennessee River basin has one of the most outstanding and diverse aquatic communities within the entire state.
Savannah River Basin
Only 2 percent of the Savannah River basin is located in Western North Carolina draining, 172 square miles in Macon, Jackson, Transylvania and Clay counties. Much of the basin is in public ownership, including portions of the Nantahala National Forest and the North Carolina Gorges State Park. With no impaired waters in the basin, the Savannah exhibits excellent water quality, with the exception of a few small headwater streams impacted by developmental runoff.
French Broad River Basin
The French Broad River basin drains 2,830 square miles in North Carolina, going from the high mountains through the broad, flat Asheville Basin. The basin includes land in Haywood, Madison, Buncombe, Transylvania, Henderson, Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties. The basin is subdivided into three sub-basins, the French Broad River, the Nolichucky River, and the Pigeon River, none of which merge in North Carolina. Approximately 50 percent of the basin is forested with extensive portions found in the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. Agriculture covers 17 percent of the basin and 10 percent is considered urban.
The French Broad River headwaters start in the mountains of Transylvania County and flow north to Tennessee. The Pigeon River parallels Interstate 40 north of Canton, NC and also flows into Tennessee. The Nolichucky River is formed by the convergence of the North Toe River and Cane River north of Burnsville, North Carolina. This sub-basin drains the western slope of the Blue Ridge north from Mount Mitchell to the Tennessee state line. The Nolichucky and Pigeon rivers merge with the French Broad in Douglas Lake, east of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Broad River Basin
The Broad River Basin is located mostly in South Carolina. The 150 square miles of the Broad River Basin located in North Carolina contain the headwaters of the basin. Many small forest streams in Henderson, Buncombe, and McDowell counties combine to form the Green and Broad Rivers.
Catawba River Basin
The Catawba River basin begins on the eastern ridge of the Blue Ridge and quickly moves off the escarpment into the Piedmont. The basin drains 3,343 square miles of land but 93 square miles of it is in Western North Carolina. The Catawba River originates in the forested streams found between Blowing Rock and Old Fort. Flow from the Linville River merges with the Catawba in Lake James, in McDowell County.
Watagua River Basin
The headwaters of the Watauga River basin are located in the mountains of Watauga and Avery counties. Predominantly forestland, the Elk and Watauga rivers drain 205 square miles in North Carolina and flows northwest into Watauga Lake in Carter County, Tennessee.
New River Basin
Stretching through Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga counties, the New River Basin drains 753 square miles in Western North Carolina. With a rural mountainous landscape, half of the basin’s land usage is forested, 33 percent pasture, and 6 percent, urban. In 1976, the New was dedicated as a National Scenic River. Most development occurs in the valleys, though in recent years, rates of steep slope development are rising. With an estimated age of 300 million years old, the New River is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world and hosts rare mountain bog habitats which require ample soil moisture to exist.
Yadkin River Basin
Only the forested headwaters of the Yadkin River are located in Western North Carolina, with 838 square miles predominantly in Wilkes County. The vast majority of the basin is located in the Piedmont. Three of North Carolina’s major cities depend on this basin for water supply.