N.C. must reply to S.C. water suit, court says

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that North Carolina must reply to a lawsuit filed by South Carolina seeking to prevent towns outside the Catawba River basin from taking its water.

North Carolina had permitted 10 million gallons of water a day from the Catawba River to go to Concord and Kannapolis -- water that leaves the basin never to return. Instead, it goes to the Yadkin River Basin, a basin twice as large as the Catawba River basin.

The court ruled against South Carolina's request for an injunction that would stop the transfers to Concord and Kannapolis.

Both the Catawba and the Yadkin flow into South Carolina. The Catawba turns into the Wateree River near Columbia, then the Santee by Charleston. The Yadkin River flows into the Great Pee Dee and runs by Florence.

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster said this is the first step toward a resolution from the Supreme Court.

"First, they accepted our complaint," McMaster said. "That should clear the way for them to accept the case."

Under McMaster's filing in "original jurisdiction," the court normally assigns a special master, often a retired federal judge, to hear the case and make recommendations to the Supreme Court, which can accept, deny or amend the findings.

Original jurisdiction is almost always used in cases where states fight over boundaries or water, said Elizabeth Gibson, a professor of law at UNC Chapel Hill.

McMaster said he filed the case with the Supreme Court instead of federal district court because of the case's importance.

The N.C. Department of Justice, which has 30 days to respond, would not comment.

N.C. state Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte, chairman of the bi-state water commission, opposed the S.C. lawsuit.

"This is a sideshow," he said.

McMaster, though, remained confident the case would make it to the special master. The Supreme Court can still dismiss the case before it is assigned a special master.

"I believe a rule will be established that one state cannot unilaterally turn off the water for another state," he said.

York County Councilman Rick Lee said, "I am pleased we have a case; it is before the Supreme Court. We're in the ballgame to protect our water."

York County Councilman Curwood Chappell added, "I hope we end up saving the little water we have."

The mayor of the city that started the dispute by asking for the water transfer, Concord Mayor Scott Padgett, stayed out of the argument Monday.

"I view this as an issue between North and South Carolina and not directed at us," he said.

Catawba River advocate Donna Lisenby said she felt vindicated.

"Clearly something went wrong in the process if the Supreme Court is going to get in the middle of it," she said.