No state owns the Catawba River. It is a vital resource shared by both North and South Carolina.
But a bill now being considered by the North Carolina Legislature could have a significant adverse effect on the quality of the water as it flows downstream into South Carolina. This amounts to lifting safeguards that have been used by both states to prevent the contamination of the river that provides drinking water and recreational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of residents in the region.
The proposed legislation, which was approved by the N.C. Senate last week, would remove the 50-foot buffer along the river and its lakes that both states have honored since 2001. The bill also would bar local governments in North Carolina from enacting their own buffer zones.
York County currently enforces a 50-foot setback along Lake Wylie and the river.
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If the measure is approved by the N.C. House, the result would be that property owners could build homes or businesses or otherwise disturb ground right up to the edge of the water. That could severely increase the amount of construction runoff, surface runoff from driveways and parking lots, and pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.
Sediment from work sites would find its way into the river. Silt would build up, nutrients in fertilizers would increase growth of algae and a host of other chemical could threaten water purity.
Pollution already is occurring, but removing the buffer zone could substantially increase the problem. The move has been roundly criticized by Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, who called it “inexplicable and indefensible,” and board members members of the Riverkeeper Foundation.
We hope South Carolina lawmakers and concerned residents will join in condemning this bill. South Carolina has a right to demand that upstream users respect the river and the needs of those living downstream.
This dispute is reminiscent of another that occurred a decade ago when North Carolina proposed transferring up to 10 million gallons of water a day from the Catawba to the cities of Concord and Kannapolis, both of which are outside the river’s basin. South Carolina filed a lawsuit to prevent the transfer, arguing that it was unconstitutional for North Carolina to unilaterally re-route water from a river shared by the two states.
The case nearly made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, however, the controversy ended in 2010 when all parties agreed to limit any out-of-basin transfers.
But the agreement was not reached without a fight. The effort to protect water vital to South Carolinians was joined by elected officials, environmental groups and concerned residents.
Removing the 50-foot buffer zone in North Carolina might not pose as direct a challenge to shared water rights as the proposed rerouting of hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the river. But over time, erosion and runoff could pose a serious threat to water quality downstream.
We hope opponents in South Carolina can persuade N.C. House members to vote down this pernicious bill and honor the agreement that has helped protect the river for nearly a decade.