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N.C.: Let's deal


LAKE WYLIE -- In a reversal of roles, North Carolina is now asking South Carolina to consider a litigation-less solution to end the water war between the states.

On Friday, the Catawba Wateree Bi-State Commission received a letter from North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper stating his state supports the Nov. 5, 2008, commission letter offering to help resolve the dispute between the Carolinas over an interbasin transfer, a water withdrawal from the Catawba River in North Carolina. The North Carolina approval of withdrawing 10-million gallons a day prompted South Carolina to sue its neighbor. In the fall, the commission petitioned from both attorney generals to help find a solution in the water dispute.

"The commission members, which include legislators from both states, have substantial expertise in environmental matters and have direct and personal knowledge with respect to this river basin," read the letter distributed Friday.

More importantly, Cooper said, the commission -- made up of elected officials from both states and environmental leaders, marine commissioners and other advocacy groups close to the water -- has a "proven track record of working cooperatively with respect to water-related issues that impact both states."

Cooper then called for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster to do the same. But South Carolina isn't so receptive.

Mark Plowden, spokesman for McMaster's office, said stopping the forward motion of the case now to negotiate would be "fool hearty at best," and could even deprive future water users in this country of a decision impacting numerous water sources.

"The general consensus is that this is now the end of a U.S. Supreme Court case in original jurisdiction," Plowden said. "In all practicality, this is a train that left the North Carolina station long ago."

Before the June 2007 lawsuit filing against North Carolina, McMaster met with Cooper and proposed a negotiation that would head off litigation. S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford also sent a letter to then N.C. Gov. Mike Easley calling for the same compromise.

"There was absolutely no interest at all," Plowden said.

Yet Cooper's latest letter asking the bi-state group to help lists many of the same reasons with which McMaster first approached his office.

"The commission was created to deal with these issues and I believe it presents the best opportunity for the states to work together to resolve this dispute, avoid substantial litigation costs and reach a fair settlement," Cooper wrote.

The case currently awaits a date to for the High Court to hear arguments about whether three interveners -- Duke Energy, city of Charlotte and Catawba River Water Supply Project -- should participate. Plowden has neither a timeframe for the resolution of the case or a total cost estimate, though past estimates place the South Carolina cost in the millions of dollars.

"All of the points we bring up, we've been winning," Plowden said. "The state is succeeding. We've got momentum in this case."

"This will be something not only that resolves this dispute, but sets a precedent that generations can use as a road map for years to come."

Despite differing opinions, the commission still hopes it can assist in the case so the two states can avoid more costs. Along with calls Friday for continued discussions with McMaster, the group executed an option in its intrastate bylaws for the first time, proposing and approving the addition of two new advisory commission members. While given no voting ability, former York County Councilman and Catawba advocate Rick Lee and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities can now serve as stakeholders in the group.

"If we get more stakeholders, that gives us more of a voice in saying what we feel is best for this basin," said N.C. Sen. Dan Clodfelter.