Are we doing enough to protect the river?

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By Jenny Hartley

First it was the Carolina heelsplitter.

Now, Lancaster County can add the Catawba River to its endangered list, according to a river advocacy group.

American Rivers released a report late last week that listed the Catawba – Lancaster County's entire western border – as the No. 1 most endangered river in the nation. Its main threat – outdated water supply management, according to the report.

The heelsplitter, coincidentally, lives in a creek in northern Lancaster County that eventually feeds into the Catawba. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the heelsplitter's population has been diminished due to runoff into streams from development and construction.

River report

American Rivers put the 300-mile Catawba-Wateree River ahead of nine others on the group's top 10 list for 2008. The report summary says the river "is being drained away by water mismanagement and explosive population growth." It is also being threatened by predictions of more frequent droughts due to global warming, the report said.

Rivers from Maine to Oregon made the list this year. The organization chooses them from nominations made by environmental and river advocacy groups and bases the selections on the significance of a river as a resource, the level of the threat and pending decisions that could affect it in the next year.

The most-threatened rivers this year are endangered by proposed construction projects, outdated management plans and faulty ideas to pull water from them, the report said.

Making the list doesn't mean the river is the most polluted, with rivers on the list ranging from pristine to severely degraded.

Local conservationist Lindsay Pettus said the report is intended to point out that the Carolinas need to be vigilant on one of their greatest resources.

"We do need to careful about heavy growth patterns along the river," Pettus said. "We ought to be smart enough to protect one of the most valuable assets we've got."

Growth is exploding along the Catawba in both Carolinas, which are in a war over water.

The North Carolina cities of Concord and Kannapolis want to draw 10 million gallons a day from the river before it flows south to the state line. The river provides drinking water to 1.3 million people and electricity to at least a million people, according to Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp., which owns and operates the river's reservoirs and power plants.

In June, South Carolina filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court opposing plans by Concord and Kannapolis. South Carolina said a 1991 North Carolina law allowing the water transfer violates the U.S. Constitution because it prevents the states from equitably sharing the river.

North Carolina said its water needs pose no imminent threat to its southern neighbor and called for the suit to be dismissed. The high court has appointed a special master to help resolve the dispute.

Local response

Duke Energy spokeswoman Marilyn Lineberger said the Catawba-Wateree River is well-managed, as evidenced during the unprecedented drought that has persisted in the region for the past year.

"The collaboration among major water suppliers and Duke Energy has resulted in conservation and ensured that vital public services, such as drinking water, electricity and water for jobs remain available," Lineberger said in a statement from the power company.

Extensive studies have been done on the river as part of Duke's multi-year relicensing project. The studies indicate a healthy river, according to the company.

"As population continues to grow around the basin, collaboration and balancing the needs of water users across the region continues to be vital," Lineberger said. "The comprehensive relicensing agreement, which is part of Duke's new license application, helps ensure that balance."

Lancaster County Water and Sewer District Manager Mark Knight said while water users need to be concerned with the quality and quantity of the river, he doesn't necessarily agree with the American Rivers report.

Over the past five years, elected officials, water and sewer officials and environmentalists have come together to monitor water and drought management. Due to last year's extreme drought, local and state officials have a much more coordinated and consistent drought management plan for the future, Knight said. There is also proposed legislation in both Carolinas right now to address water management.

Knight said he believes the area did well in managing the river through the worst drought in history, with users reducing their water usage by 30 to 40 percent.

"It's not perfect, and it's something we'll have to continue to work on," Knight said. "I think we still have a lot of work to do, but to say we've neglected it is incorrect."

County Council Chairman Rudy Carter said the Charlotte Regional Partnership, a 16-county, nonprofit economic development agency,, has discussed how to manage the river.

"What if a major industry wanted to locate here, but it was a major water user? How would we handle that?" Carter said. "We absolutely need the industry, but at what cost?"

The Charlotte partnership is developing some plans on how to deal with growth and its potential impacts on the river. Carter said he won't say that he disagrees with the American Rivers report, but doesn't see the Catawba as much different from other rivers in the state.

Conserving the river

Major developments have been approved along the Catawba River in Lancaster County over the last several years, including Sun City Carolina Lakes. Most recently, County Council approved Riverchase Estates, which calls for 1,200 homes on Riverside Road.

Pulte Homes, which develops Sun City communities, took special care to reduce runoff into the Catawba, said division president Jon Hardy.

Construction crews installed 60 miles of silt fence, built sediment basins and created a natural filtering system to catch runoff before it reaches the Catawba, one of the main attractions to the community restricted to residents age 55 and up. Along the river, there is a 200-foot "no build" zone and acres of natural vegetation and buffers, Hardy said.

Common space landscaping at Sun City is watered by wells, including one that draws from 2,500 feet below the ground. Residents are good stewards of the river, managing their use, Hardy said.

"We certainly have taken the river's health seriously," Hardy said. "It has the propensity to become a very unhealthy river if we don't take care of it."

More residents, not just in Sun City but countywide, would probably conserve water if Lancaster County Water and Sewer District would change its billing system, Hardy said. The utility charges a minimum fee, even if residents reduce water use or use none at all.

"People would start to conserve more if they didn't get billed for what they didn't use," Hardy said.

Pettus' organization, Katawba Valley Land Trust, has worked since the 1990s to bring awareness and conservation to the Catawba River basin, home to thousands of plant and animal species, including the endangered rocky shoals spider lily. The lily is found in only a few places in the world.

KVLT recently finalized conservation easements and land purchases in the Great Falls area that will help protect precious acreage along the river and creeks that feed into it from development.

"We should not forget about the tributaries that feed the Catawba," Pettus said. "We need wildlife corridors. We need to remember that the more we pollute the river, the more costly it is to treat it. Why not do our best to protect it in the first place?"

In the end, Carter said, people need to be more mindful of the water they use. It's a resource often taken for granted.

"It's been such a normal thing to turn on the spigot and water comes out, and the average person thinks, 'Hey, we've got plenty of water,'" Carter said. "What's the answer? Pray for rain."


The Associated Press contributed to this report

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or (803) 283-1151