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Riverkeeper headed upstream

Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby looks for evidence of a fuel spill in the Paw Creek Cove of Lake Wylie in Mecklenburg County in November 2006. Lisenby is stepping down to found Waterkeepers Carolina and become the new Watauga Riverkeeper in Boone, N.C.
Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby looks for evidence of a fuel spill in the Paw Creek Cove of Lake Wylie in Mecklenburg County in November 2006. Lisenby is stepping down to found Waterkeepers Carolina and become the new Watauga Riverkeeper in Boone, N.C.

The Catawba River's first riverkeeper, Donna Lisenby, is leaving to take a similar role on the Watauga River in the N.C. mountains.

Lisenby, 43, will become Boone-based riverkeeper for the upper Watauga River and start Waterkeepers Carolina, coordinating the 14 N.C.-S.C. riverkeeper and coastkeeper programs.

Lisenby created a unique watchdog role when she arrived at the Catawba in 1997. Riverkeepers don't have the legal authority of state water-quality regulators. They can't manage waterways as Duke Energy, under its federal license, does the Catawba.

Instead, Lisenby seized the bully pulpit of public opinion, ferrying reporters to pollution sources, speaking to city councils, haggling with Duke over license terms and, last year, filing suit to stop Catawba water from being piped to Concord and Kannapolis, N.C.

A forceful personality clad in a khaki uniform, she delighted her backers and often angered her targets.

Hickory, N.C., Mayor Rudy Wright credits Lisenby with alerting the upper basin to the Concord-Kannapolis water plan. Hickory is among 22 local governments -- including York County -- that, with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, filed legal challenges that are before a state administrative court.

"She makes enemies because that's her job, to stand up for the river and not worry about making friends," Wright said. "I certainly wouldn't want to be on the opposite side of her."

York County Council member Rick Lee, who serves on the riverkeeper foundation board, said Lisenby has been instrumental in providing information about the suit.

"She has been an advocate and a spokesman for what I consider the most endangered river in America," he said.

Concord officials, who could not be reached Tuesday, have complained that Lisenby distorted their plan and repeated inaccuracies.

Duke Energy, a frequent Lisenby target, said in a statement: "Duke Energy wishes her success and all the best."

Lisenby helped oppose a regional waste treatment plant in South Carolina, forced North Carolina to give part of the Catawba near Morganton, N.C., a protective trout-water designation and fought for greater public access to Lake James.

One of her biggest fights in York County was against a company that wanted to put a tire incineration facility where an Edgemoor school had been. Lisenby and others fought and eventually bought the school and turned it into a community center.

Lisenby said she now wants to work on broader environmental issues, particularly air pollution. The environmental group Appalachian Voices, her new employer, has a record of fighting mountain pollution and a major source, coal-fired power plants.

Because power plants release toxic mercury, which contaminates N.C. waters, the state's riverkeepers will jointly sue to stop expansion of Duke Energy's Cliffside plant.

Appalachian Voices recruited Lisenby soon after winning approval for an upper Watauga Riverkeeper.

"Donna is everything you could ever hope, not only in a riverkeeper but as an environmental voice," said executive director Mary Anne Hitt. "She's incredibly intelligent, friendly and personable, and knows the law backwards and forwards. She's one of the most respected riverkeepers in the nation, if not the world."

Lisenby leaves the Catawba on March 8. She considers her biggest achievement uniting the people of the basin to influence state and local government.

"I dare say Raleigh (N.C.) and Columbia have learned to include the people of this basin in their decisions," she said, "and that woe betide them should they make unilateral decisions without the input of this basin."

David Merryman, who had previously served as assistant riverkeeper focusing on the upper Catawba, will return April 1 as the new Catawba riverkeeper.

Charlotte environmental attorney Rick Gaskins will become the foundation's executive director, a role Lisenby also held.

By splitting Lisenby's duties in half, foundation chairman Gary Faulkenberry said, the riverkeeper can focus on the water while an administrator focuses on fundraising and other matters.

"She has really laid a good foundation," said Buddy Motz, chairman of the York County Council. "It's our loss and their gain."

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