Water flap over Catawba River intensifies with N.C. motion

COLUMBIA -- A legal war between the Carolinas intensified Friday over use of the Catawba River, a 225-mile waterway under increasing pressure from both states in the drought-stricken Southeast.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper asked the U.S. Supreme Court to dismiss South Carolina's case against his state for permanently draining millions of gallons from the river every day.

South Carolina claims the water diversions are illegal under federal law and are keeping precious water from reaching the Palmetto State during times of drought. It has asked the nation's high court to hear its case.

But in his answer Friday, Cooper said North Carolina's permanent diversion of some water from the Catawba River basin has had little if any effect on the Catawba in South Carolina. Cooper cited "a communication" by a South Carolina agency to bolster his argument.

The April 8, 2005, communication from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said a transfer of 10 million gallons per day would not hurt the Catawba but it might help the Pee Dee River system, which also flows into South Carolina, according to Cooper's answer. The water is to be transferred to the Pee Dee system.

Cooper's response, filed late Friday afternoon, means the U.S. Supreme Court must decide whether to let the case continue. Justices are considering whether to appoint a special judge early next year to hear arguments and then report back to the Supreme Court for a decision. Ultimately, the court could allocate portions of the river to each state.

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster's office, which says the case could establish important national legal precedent, declined comment Friday. Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley did not respond to a request for comment late Friday.

The Catawba River basin stretches from the North Carolina mountains, forms Lake Wylie near Rock Hill and continues south to the Wateree River east of Columbia. It's an important drinking water source for cities. About 80 industries and governments discharge to the Catawba-Wateree system in South Carolina, but they need adequate flows to properly dilute pollutants. The drought has imperiled wildlife, such as endangered mussels.

In its response, North Carolina admitted it has permanently taken 48 million gallons from the Catawba River basin for use in other river basins but says South Carolina has approved similar transfers.