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River leaders press for change

LAKE WYLIE -- A half dozen public service groups, four speakers, two protest signs -- the gathering Monday at Lake Wylie's busiest spot boiled down to a handful of words.

"We need water legislation," said Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman. "We can't wait any longer."

Representatives of local government joined the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, American Rivers and the Henry's Knob Group of the Sierra Club Monday morning to reiterate what they first announced eight months ago --t he Catawba River is in unparalleled danger.

"In Charlotte and in the Charlotte area, we think of ourselves as being No. 1 in a lot of things," said Jennifer Roberts, chairwoman of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners. "Having the most endangered river is not one of the things we want to be first in."

American Rivers made that designation based on factors including booming population, demands on water quantity and an impending water withdrawal from another basin. Perhaps the greatest concern, though, was a lack of state regulation between the two states -- North and South Carolina -- that use the Catawba.

"In this eight months, little has changed," said Gerrit Jobsis, southeast regional director for American Rivers.

Last year, efforts in both state assemblies accomplished little, Jobsis said, including a much-needed yet failed bill in South Carolina that would have required permitting for large water withdrawals. Also, both states lack a comprehensive water-use plan that includes regulation for major water withdrawals, he said. Jobsis hopes for more help once legislators in both states resume meeting in January.

"We are not adversaries," he said. "We are willing partners."

Rick Gaskins, executive director for the Riverkeeper Foundation, hopes the ironic opportunity created by severe drought and lowered lake levels is not passed. Even as the drought continues, lake levels are near normal and many communities have relaxed water use restrictions.

"People focus on what's hurting them, and right now that's the economy," he said.

Roberts said some progress is being made. On Nov. 20, the CONNECT Council held its first meeting, hosted by 17 area counties, as well as the Centrolina and Catawba councils of government.

"The idea of the CONNECT program is to take the best practices in one county and share those with other counties," Roberts said. "Regionally, we have made a lot of progress."

Possible local programs include a regionwide Muddy Water Watch program and a sedimentation spotters program, similar to Riverkeeper Foundation initiatives. "There is such a sense of urgency in this community, and also a sense of community vision and community values," Roberts said.

The only way to keep the Catawba from remaining one of the most endangered rivers in the country, experts say, is a full-scale approach mixing state legislation, regional partnership and local advocacy. "This river holds the most uncertain future of our nation's waters," Merryman said.

Want to help?

The next Muddy Water Watch training series, teaching residents to monitor the single greatest threat to water quality in construction runoff, begins the second Tuesday of January. For more, visit catawbariverkeeper.org.

Two cases on the heated interbasin transfer case continue in the federal Supreme Court and in the appeals court of North Carolina. The North Carolina cities of Concord and Kannapolis asked for and received a withdrawal from the Catawba River north of Lake Wylie. The granted amount came in at 10 million gallons of water per day, about a third of the request.

The Supreme Court case "is moving very slowly as cases in court tend to do," said Riverkeeper David Merryman. In that case, South Carolina hopes to stop North Carolina from allowing the withdrawal. The appeal of the North Carolina's decision, funded by the Riverkeeper Foundation and numerous communities in both states, remains in the discovery phase. That phase should end, Merryman said, by the summer of 2009.

"There is some progress in that case," he said.

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