Earning the title of most endangered river in the nation may be the best thing that has happened for the Catawba River in some time. But if leaders in both North and South Carolina fail to heed the warning, it may prove to be the river's obituary.
American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that has turned out most-endangered lists since 1886, gave the Catawba top honors for 2008. It is, of course, an unwelcome designation but also one that can help shine a bright light on a river whose existence is threatened.
The group cites rising demand on water supplies because of heavy population growth and development throughout the Catawba's river basin. The threat of a proposed interbasin transfer of millions of gallons of water a day to the serve fast-growing North Carolina cities of Kannapolis and Concord also poses a genuine threat to the river.
American Rivers also notes the threat of a historic drought that lingers in much of the Southeast. And it chastises officials from both states for failing to enact adequate water-use guidelines and regional policies to ensure a lasting supply of water for those who depend on the Catawba.
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American Rivers concedes that the Catawba's designation as most endangered river is more a call to action than a scientific assessment of the river's condition. But Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman, whose group nominated the river for inclusion on the list, said that draining a river dry is not just a scary scenario for the future. It already has happened to rivers in the semi-arid Southwest where demands have outstripped rivers' capacity to replenish themselves.
One challenge is to use the river responsibly, and officials in Rock Hill, the second-largest water provider in the Charlotte metro area, and in the rest of York County have taken concrete steps to do that. Municipalities in York County -- and across the state line, too -- have reacted to the drought with careful monitoring and water use restrictions .
Rock Hill City Manager Carey Smith also points to a plan to recycle used water at the city's treatment plants for irrigation of city properties. He said officials also are looking into a tiered water rate plan that will reward those who conserve water and charge higher rates for heavy users.
Local officials also have joined with a diverse coalition from both North and South Carolina to fight the interbasin transfer proposal. The legislatures of both states have looked at ways to overhaul regional water policies to prevent such transfers in the future. And S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to intercede and halt the transfer.
These serious threats to the river's well being should provide a strong impetus for a comprehensive water policy covering the entire Catawba basin. Both Carolinas must work together to establish guidelines that both states will adhere to and to prevent any out-of-basin water transfers.
The designation of the Catawba as the most endangered river in the nation is nothing to crow about. But it should serve as a clarion call for everyone who depends on water from the river and for every public policy-maker whose decisions affect the river.
With that in mind, we have one thing to say to American Rivers: Thanks.