In a March 18 letter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency voided a site specific seasonal variance for dissolved oxygen (DO) in trout waters of the Catawba River. This supports the argument of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Southern Environmental Law Center that not only should the 11-mile stretch of the Catawba River from the Bridgewater Dam to Morganton, N.C. (Tailrace) be reclassified as trout water, but the higher dissolved oxygen standard necessary to support a trout fishery also must apply.
"In this instance, the state of North Carolina did not provide any scientific justification to show seasonal DO criterion lower than the state's approved trout DO criterion (6 milligram per liter) would be protective of the two trout species in the Tailrace," said A. Stanley Meiburg, acting EPA regional administrator.
Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman answered by saying, "The Catawba's water provides sustenance for all of us along its banks. Why shouldn't the inhabitants of the Catawba be allowed to breathe easily?
"The EPA has held the state of North Carolina accountable for protecting our river's health and quality," he said. "We have to enjoy our rapidly disappearing trout streams -- this ruling helps us do just that."
Because this water had been historically stocked with trout and a naturally reproducing population had been established, American Rivers initiated a petition in 2004 to reclassify this section of the river downstream of Duke Energy's Bridgewater Dam as trout water. When the state denied this petition, the state's Superior Court overruled the Environmental Management Commission's denial. The court ruled the state must reclassify the water to protect all existing uses including trout.
North Carolina complied with the court's ruling and reclassified the water as trout, but issued a site specific DO variance that allowed a lower oxygen level (4 milligrams per liter) to be met during critical summer months instead of the state DO standard for trout waters (6 milligrams per liter). Duke Energy did not want to have to meet the higher oxygen levels in discharges from their Bridgewater Dam, which is undergoing relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The EPA's ruling has voided this site-specific variance and requires oxygen levels be maintained at the state standard for dissolved oxygen in trout waters, 6 milligrams per liter.