How healthy is Lake Wylie? Experts weigh in ahead of annual Riversweep

Riversweep 2017 yields an array of junk from Lake Wylie

Each year, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation organizes Riversweep, an event to clear debris from Lake Wylie and its many coves and inlets.
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Each year, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation organizes Riversweep, an event to clear debris from Lake Wylie and its many coves and inlets.

Lake Wylie is about to undertake its biggest cleanup of the year on Saturday. So, just how clean is the lake?

“Where to start,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, whose foundation monitors water quality and threats not just on the lake that straddles North Carolina and South Carolina but all along the Catawba River basin.

The 16th annual Riversweep returns Oct. 6 with a dozen sites along the lake and as many as 1,000 volunteers collecting tons of trash.

“This year we need volunteers more than ever,” said Ellen Goff, Riverkeeper foundation board member and Lake Wylie Marine Commission member. “The effects of Hurricane Florence may have a real impact on the amount of trash that has been carried into the lake by the flood waters.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find out there and how much of it, so we need as many volunteers as possible,” she said.

However, the lake’s health involves more than just trash. Not everything that gets into the water is easily removed.

“Over the past 12 months, there have definitely been some major events, notably the sewer spill and sediment impacts,” Perkins said.

In April, more than 15 million gallons of sewage spilled into a creek leading into the lake.

In July, sediment poured into the lake from a new home construction site in the Bonum Road area in northern York County.

“The South Fork (river) is still a major source of sediment and other pollution,” Perkins said. “It is really difficult to compare the lakes. Wylie gets the worst pulse of sediment because of the South Fork.”

Wylie also has pressure from home building all along its shores.

From 2016 to mid-September this year, York County issued 552 notices of violation for construction projects. The majority were for new home or apartment construction, with many in Lake Wylie or its tributaries. The county issued 74 stop work orders, marking a lack of environmental compliance.

The Ivy Ridge townhomes, Cypress Point and Lake Crest — all on Bonum Road — had six stop work orders each. Lakepointe Ridge on Montgomery Road had five. Most of the new residential construction sites in Lake Wylie and many in other parts of the county received at least one stop work order.

From March 31, 2017 to Sept. 4, 2018 the county levied 49 fines for environmental infractions. Of those, 35 were for illicit discharges involving spilled concrete (10 fines), sediment (9), paint or stucco (6), sewage or septic (3) and chemicals or petroleum (2).

The total amount of those 49 fines is $33,500.

Groups like the Riverkeeper foundation and marine commission say fines aren’t high enough to deter builders from dumping material or cutting corners with erosion control. For comparison, a single new home in Tega Cay now pays more than $26,000 solely in development impact fees.

No fine exceeded $1,000, except a Fort Mill resident fined $7,500 for discharging a septic tank and Lake Crest fined $2,000 for intentionally discharging to another construction site. There also are smaller fines, dumping paint into a creek for $250 and dumping concrete into a storm drain, $500.

Fines have been levied against home builders, subcontractors or developers at Lake Crest, Lakepointe Ridge, Kings Grove Manor, Catawba Shores, Palm Tree Cove, Handsmill, The Lodges at Lake Wylie and Tullamore, among others.

York County leaders are working on rule and process changes they hope will enforce better compliance. York County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey said earlier this month he’s heard “several concerns about developers and building contaminating the lake” and fines aren’t the best solution.

“I’d much rather them not contaminate it, and keep their money, and help us protect it,” Roddey said.

Tom Smith has been developing residential communities in the area for three decades. He said not all developers are hurting the lake, even when they build close to it. When remnants from Hurricane Florence flooded the area this month, orange water flowed at one of his Lake Wylie projects, The Bluffs, off Highway 274.

When Smith checked the site, he found the runoff was from a road construction nearby. His sediment basins met the challenge and water was clear there.

“Our basins were not compromised,” he said. “We didn’t have any blowouts.”

Even developing about 70 acres of 133 his company bought along the lake, Smith is confident he isn’t harming the lake.

“I’ve taken more (sediment) out of that lake, through dredging, than I would ever put into it in 1,000 years the way we develop,” he said.

Sewage is another concern. Since 2017, there have been 17 wastewater spills in York County reported to the state health department. All but four were near or into a water body.

The most recent spill was during Florence rains. Rock Hill reported three separate spills estimated at 211,800 gallons. Rock Hill has had seven spills since the beginning of 2017. Fort Mill and Tega Cay have had three each, York County two, York and Carolina Water Service one each.

Those spills combine for an estimated 336,052 gallons.

Luckily, the water flow helps to flush it out of the lake naturally.

“With moderating temperatures and the tremendous volume of storm water flowing through the lake in the last two weeks, our water quality is generally good,” Goff said. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have the devastating pollution eastern North Carolina is coping with in the aftermath of the storm. It’s easy to take clean water for granted until calamity strikes.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Stormwater Services routinely tests Lake Wylie water, including downstream of the state line. The most recent map shows bacteria and other contaminant levels within acceptable ranges for swimming and ecological health. The higher up the lake, the better they tend to be.

Ecological health is lowest near the state line where the South Fork River empties into the Catawba’s main channel. Both swimming and aquatic life conditions there are “partially supporting” those activities, a level up from an impaired waterway. Other areas with ecological concerns include Paw Creek in Mecklenburg County, two sites near The Palisades in Steele Creek and Tega Cay south of the state border, and the main channel between Fort Mill and Rock Hill.

Another measurement of water quality is by fish. Lake Wylie has fish consumption advisories in North Carolina since 2011 for largemouth bass because of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls. South Carolina has an advisory recommending no more than one meal per week of largemouth bass or white catfish from the lake because of PCBs.

Riversweep organizers hope awareness and concern for Lake Wylie, York County’s major resource for drinking water, bring more hands to Saturday’s event.

“We’ve got a lot of great prizes for our drawings for pre-registered volunteers and boat captains,” Goff said. “People can still volunteer simply by showing up.”

Riversweep runs from 8 a.m. to noon. For more information or to register, visit lakewylieriversweep.com.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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