A rule designed to keep upstream waters clean for downstream users soon could be gone. Where? Immediately upstream of Lake Wylie.
North Carolina lawmakers are considering legislation that would take away the 50-foot buffer along the Catawba River and its lakes. That means property owners could build or disturb ground right up to the water instead of honoring a setback dating back to 2001 – the same 50-foot setback York County has along Lake Wylie and the river.
On Monday night, the North Carolina Senate passed its version of the bill, S.434. It impacts more than 1,000 miles of Catawba shoreline. The North Carolina House of Representatives will take it up next.
The Lake Wylie Marine Commission voted at its meeting Monday night, unaware that at the same time N.C. senators were approving the measure, to send a letter opposing it. The letter went to legislators in both North and South Carolina.
“The buffer zone issue in North Carolina is devastating,” said Ellen Goff, both a marine commission and Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation board member. “It’s nothing short of disastrous. I don’t know what they’re thinking. It impacts the entire basin.”
Goff was one of two commissioners who said the creeks near her home on Lake Wylie were “running red” due to extended rain and sediment buildup from construction near the water. York County Council recently discussed a need to beef up its runoff regulations after cases of sediment from work sites getting into local waterways.
Dan Mullane leads the Lake Wylie Covekeepers, the local group under the Riverkeeper Foundation. Mullane said not only would the state rule remove the Catawba’s buffer, but also limit local municipalities.
“It would remove the buffer zone from the Catawba River,” Mullane said. “It would also disallow local governments from enacting their own laws on buffer zones.”
Which baffles Goff and others.
“We are stating the blatantly obvious here, that this is an unconscionable move,” she said. “I’m shocked that the legislature is considering this.”
Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins argued against the recent move in a North Carolina legislative subcommittee. He called it “inexplicable and indefensible” not only to remove the buffer, but only to do it along the Catawba.
“The Catawba and its lakes need the buffer more than most river systems because so much of the river is dammed up into lakes with recreation, development and drinking water intakes,” he said.
Waves from boats can quickly erode shoreline, he said, meaning a loss of property. The buffer also helps filter out contaminants before they get to the water, from fertilizers to oils. The Charlotte region gets its drinking water from Mountain Island Lake, Wylie’s nearest upstream neighbor. York County and others get their water from Lake Wylie.
“People both on and off the lakes don’t just covet this buffer for its natural aesthetic value – they need the buffer as a component of improving water quality, which provides recreation, drinking water and property tax base,” Perkins said.
Goff said the public may not respond to buffer concerns they way it has, in recent years, with sewage spills. Those spills tend to draw attention and legislative action. She wonders how groups like the Riverkeeper Foundation can convey the importance of runoff and sedimentation.
“It is as impactful and as harmful as raw sewage,” Goff said.
A separate bill in South Carolina, S.105, has environmentalists concerned, too. The bill would limit the process of challenging permits. Now, a citizen can challenge a permit issued by a South Carolina regulatory agency with environmental impacts. If challenged in an administrative law court, an automatic stay pauses work while a court reviews it.
The new bill would remove that pause after 30 days.
“It’s loosening up more than tightening up,” Mullane said.