COLUMBIA -- South Carolina has won the backing of a top federal lawyer in its water-rights fight against North Carolina but support from the U.S. solicitor general will only go so far without state money to continue the case, Attorney General Henry McMaster says.
McMaster on Monday renewed his call for state lawmakers to provide the $2.2 million his office is seeking in next year's budget for the Catawba River water-rights fight. Last week, House budget writers chose not to fund McMaster's request. The full House and Senate still must take up the budget.
McMaster said not getting the money could cripple his efforts, which have been successful, so far. The Legislature provided more than $1 million last year.
"It's an expensive case, but it's an enormously important case," McMaster said. "The results of this case may very well set precedent for the water usage in our area, in this region of the country, for decades to come."
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The legal fight centers on decisions in North Carolina to siphon millions of gallons of water from the Catawba River basin, then discharge the water into other river basins. That results in a net loss of water. McMaster says South Carolina needs an equal seat at the table with North Carolina when such decisions are made. He is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to divide the river equally between the two states. He filed suit in 2007.
The Supreme Court's decision could guide how disputes are handled on other rivers, including the Yadkin-Pee Dee, which flows through both Carolinas; and the Savannah, which forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The Catawba, which provides drinking water to 1.3 million people, begins in the North Carolina mountains and winds through central South Carolina before draining into the Wateree-Santee river system that empties into the ocean.
In a legal brief field last week with the Supreme Court, the U.S. Solicitor General's Office said McMaster is correct in seeking to boot Duke Energy and the city of Charlotte out of the legal dispute. Both contend they should have a say in the fight, but McMaster said allowing Duke and Charlotte to intervene could slow the legal fight and drive up costs.
The Solicitor General's Office, a division of the Justice Department, determines the position the federal government will take in U.S. Supreme Court cases. Andrew Ames, a spokesman for U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, declined comment, except to say that Kneedler wants to see the interstate fight resolved properly.
Officials with Duke and Charlotte say they should have a voice in the legal case since they use and manage the river extensively. Duke, for instance, operates hydroelectric dams and controls the flow of some water withdrawals. Charlotte is one of the river's major users.
McMaster said most of the money he needs to fight North Carolina would go for legal fees and expert witnesses. The Attorney General's Office wants $1.25 million for legal fees. It has hired a Washington, D.C., law firm to assist. McMaster also said he needs $775,000 for expert witnesses. Those include two hydrologists, a climatologist and an economist.
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hilll, said getting the money might be difficult because the state budget is so tight this year.
"I don't think he's asking for a dime more than what he needs to be successful, but whether he's able to get the full amount, we'll have to wait and see." Hayes added that local governments also might have to kick in money for the legal bills.