COLUMBIA -- S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to stop North Carolina from siphoning away millions of gallons of water from the Catawba River before that waterway reaches South Carolina.
The lawsuit, filed by McMaster on behalf of the state of South Carolina, had been anticipated for months.
But it is significant because it could set precedent for future water disputes between states. It also could decide whether South Carolina should have had a say in North Carolina's decision to permit the transfer of water from the Catawba River basin to the Yadkin-Pee Dee River basin.
Drought adds to urgency
The issue is particularly urgent this summer as a drought settles in. Permanently losing water from the Catawba River will mean lower river levels during times of drought. That could mean less water for S.C. residents to drink and for the state's industry, S.C. officials say.
The Catawba River flows from North Carolina, past Charlotte, into South Carolina. There, it hooks with other rivers and empties into the Atlantic.
McMaster's request for the Supreme Court to settle the interstate water dispute follows what he said were attempts to resolve the issue outside court. McMaster said he favors formation of an interstate compact to decide water issues. In the case of the Catawba, a North Carolina commission made its decision and South Carolina had no right of veto, McMaster said.
The lawsuit is supported by a diverse group of local officials, including state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill; Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby; Dale Herendeen, environmental manager at Bowater's Catawba River plant; and Larry Bunch, manager of Lake Wylie Marina.
The case probably would not be considered until October at the earliest. It could take years to resolve.
"I think it's a strong case," Lisenby said Thursday. "I feel very good about it. It's underpinned with a really strong technical, environmental affidavit showing how our commerce is impacted."
During a drought five years ago, Bunch watched boat traffic plummet at the Lake Wylie Marina. He says he feels more reason to worry now given North Carolina's stance.
"We're in a drought situation now," he said. "The lake is falling. We could be right back in the same situation. Taking more water out is not going to help. Where does it end?"