Here’s how water experts plan to keep Catawba River flowing to meet everyone’s needs

Water pours into the Catawba River from the bottom of Lake James at the Linville Dam near Morganton. A federal appeals court has denied Duke Energy’s bid for a longer federal license to manage the Catawba.
Water pours into the Catawba River from the bottom of Lake James at the Linville Dam near Morganton. A federal appeals court has denied Duke Energy’s bid for a longer federal license to manage the Catawba. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Wet as it’s been lately due to rainfall in the York County area, it’s hard to imagine there are experts worrying about drought and water loss.

Well, let’s not say worrying. Call it planning.

The 18 municipal water providers in North and South Carolina along the Catawba River basin, plus Duke Energy, make up the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group. That group is trying to determine much water there is, how much they’re losing and how to account for the loss.

“I think when people actually see what the cost of water is, compared to trying to treat new water, I think we’ll all be focusing a little more on, how do we capture that (savings)?” said Jimmy Bagley, group chairman and deputy city manager for Rock Hill.

The group doesn’t know those costs.

Duke Energy announced a $100,000 grant earlier this month to help launch a water loss management study -- and program to fix it. The study could be done in a year, with recommendations to follow. The power company’s money is part of $800,000 in grants for 11 organizations across the Carolinas, part of a $10 million multi-year environmental pledge from Duke.

“Water is a shared natural resource that connects us all,” said Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe, Duke’s South Carolina president. “These grants are supporting projects that will benefit our communities now and for many years to come.”

When the water providers started meeting a dozen years ago, they looked at how much drain there is on the Catawba River versus how much water flows through it. Estimates showed by 2048, there wouldn’t be enough water available to meet all the needs. Attention was high amid a record drought from 2007 to 2009.

But water availability isn’t only about rain. It’s about population change, new industry and energy production.

In York County, it’s about sedimentation, development impact, and laws and regulations across two states sharing the Catawba and Lake Wylie, one of 14 lakes in the river system.

Forming the water basin group is a major reason experts now say the Catawba could sustain the needs beyond 2048. The group’s next goal is to extend it to 2100.

“We’ve done a lot of different projects, and the water supply master plan has been one of the big ones,” Bagley said. “That’s a living document.”

The water loss study is the next part.

Despite specific and itemized bills most water customers receive, municipal providers don’t always know where all of its water is going. Fire departments, for instance, often aren’t charged for water. Construction sometimes requires tapping into a hydrant without metering.

“It’s really hard sometimes to track how much water is leaving a hydrant,” Bagley said.

The more accuracy providers have about where water is going, Bagley said, the better able to identify issues such as leaks. Leak detection and prevention is a major issue in maintaining water levels and balance sheets.

“It’s a whole lot cheaper to fix a leak than to build a plant to put more water out there,” Bagley said.

The water loss issue is basin-wide, with municipal providers relying on one another to make changes to benefit the entire area. They also need help from Duke, a management group member and major withdrawer for power production needs.

“They’re trying to conserve water as well, like the rest of us,” Bagley said.

The water management group brings in $550,000 a year from membership dues. Leaders are considering making it $700,000 to keep up with the projects, like $150,000 each year for groundwater well monitoring, which helps predict drought. A five-year strategic plan through 2022 lists $3.2 million worth of water supply study, contingency planning, water quality work, water testing and other activities.

Bagley said it’s easy to forget in an area where water is relatively cheap, especially when record or near record rains fall as they did in some parts of the region in 2018, just how important water planning is. At least, he said, until the next drought.

If his group has its way, efforts like the water loss study will make enough difference that few people outside the group will have to worry about water, past 2048.

“Hopefully we’ll do what needs to be done to plan for our water needs before it ever gets to be a problem for anybody,” Bagley said.

With new access to the Catawba River, residents and visitors in York, Chester and Lancaster counties are "rediscovering" the natural resource amid a recreation boom. York County recreation and tourism leaders say hundreds of people are taking adva

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.

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