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It’s a list the Catawba River wouldn’t want to make. Can the river stay off for good?

An angler in a kayak fishes on the Catawba River during the River Bassin' Tournament. In 2008, the Catawba earned the unwanted distinction as the nation’s most endangered river.
An angler in a kayak fishes on the Catawba River during the River Bassin' Tournament. In 2008, the Catawba earned the unwanted distinction as the nation’s most endangered river. Herald file photo

It’s a notorious list of rivers. For the fourth straight year, the Catawba isn’t on it.

But why?

Since 1985 American Rivers, a national waterway advocacy group, has released an annual list of the country’s most endangered rivers.Issues from pollution to overuse to new dams to population increases can put a river on it. The latest list arrived April 11.

Among Carolinas waterways,the Neuse and Cape Fear river basins in North Carolina made the 2017 list. Both are threatened, according to American Rivers, by agricultural waste in the floodplains.

Since 1986, Carolinas rivers appear on the endangered list 19 times. Causes include runoff, dam construction, sewage and overdevelopment. South Carolina saw the Pee Dee (2016), South Fork or main Edisto (2014, ’15), Saluda (2009) and Santee (2005) on the list. North Carolina had the Haw (2014), Little (2010), Neuse (1995, ’96, ’97, 2007, ’17) and New (1989, ’90, ’91, ’92) make it.

The Catawba made the list three times, once topping the list as the most endangered river nationwide. All three times the environmental group listed reasons, giving a basis for measuring progress since.

2001 growth

In 2001, the Catawba made its first appearance on the endangered list. It ranked No. 13, because of land development, sewage spills and a high rate of water withdrawals. More than a decade later, some problem sources remain.

“This region is booming,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins. "Looking at York County, there is a lot of development that is active or to come."

Perkins said more still needs to be done to update sediment and erosion control measures throughout the Catawba basin. Areas such as the Crowders Creek bridge in Lake Wylie, where massive trees now grow on an island created by sediment build up in what once was just cove of water, show the common discoloration of streams and lakes after rains.

"Obviously it's not just color,” Perkins said. “It's a material."

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is working with developers and public officials, pleading for stronger runoff regulations. The group also is creating maps, apps and other ways to help people report problem areas. A new map of sewage overflows is being updated.

"That's a tool we want to get out there,” Perkins said. “Sewer overflows often happen in the same area, the same pipe or the same manhole."

That’s what was happening in Tega Cay several years ago, prompting the city to purchase Tega Cay Water Service and begin improving infrastructure known for spills. The state health department mandated changes by Carolina Water Services ahead of the sale, which the city has to finish implementing.

"Overall they still have work to do,” Perkins said. “But I think that system is starting the get the attention it needs."

Development is a “persistent issue and will continue to be,” Perkins said. He would like to see municipalities do more to keep construction runoff where it belongs, on site and out of waterways.

"We don't to have to wait until water quality gets putridly bad to get good water quality regulations in place," Perkins said.

2008 sharing water

In 2008, the Catawba earned the unwanted distinction as the nation’s most endangered river. The report that year was flooded with stories of nationwide droughts, a record event in many areas including the Carolinas that began in 2007. A summer with no rain in the Catawba basin was coupled with a pre-recession building boom bringing more people and businesses to the area.

The Carolinas were two years away from resolving a heated interbasin transfer dispute that pitted the states against each other in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The 2008 listing was based, according to American Rivers, on an outdated water supply model. The report stated the Catawba was “being drained away by water mismanagement.”

Yet progress was being made. Duke Energy and its stakeholders proposed a regionwide drought response system as part of its federal hydroelectric license for 2008, which they voluntarily set in motion ahead of schedule for the record 2007 drought. The Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group, formed then, has been active since.

“The purpose of the group is to monitor water supply and water usage along the Catawba and Wateree Rivers,” said David Hughes, water and sewer supervisor for York County.

The county is one of nearly two dozen water suppliers, distributors and stakeholders who participate. The group includes public and private interests throughout the basin. Monthly conference calls and a mandatory annual meeting keep members on the same page.

"We do have a real good concerted effort,” Hughes said. “Now it’s from above Hickory (N.C.) all the way down through the Wateree area.”

Despite more severe drought since 2007 and significant post-recession growth requiring more water from the river, the area hasn’t been forced into mandatory water use restrictions in a decade. Should that time come, the region will make the call together.

“The water supply is monitored by tracking rainfall, reservoir levels, streamflow and groundwater levels,” Hughes said. Water usage is charted to follow demand and consumption. The group collectively makes decisions concerning levels of drought and notifications to the public.”

If the Catawba returns on future endangered lists, Hughes says it would have to be for a different reason.

“It would certainly seem the creation of the (drought management group) and its hard work keeping up with the river’s status would be a prime reason the Catawba was moved off of the endangered list of rivers.”

2013 new threats

Sometimes threats to rivers linger and the endangered listing accounts for lasting issues, which is why the Edisto appeared in consecutive years, the Neuse for three straight (four overall) and the New River four straight times since the listings began. Some issues along the Catawba today, such as construction along its banks and population increase, continue since its first listing 16 years ago.

Yet other times, new issues emerge.

The Catawba made its most recent endangered rivers list in 2013 due to coal ash. The material is a byproduct of coal-based power production and includes heavy metals. Storage at coal plants mean storage along waterways. The river ranked No. 5.

The report stated 551 acres of unlined coal ash ponds threatened the more than 1.5 million people relying on the river for drinking water and power production. It pointed to four coal ash ponds on the Environmental Protection Agency list of 44 “high hazard” impoundments nationwide -- meaning the most potential for public danger should they fail.

The report called for changes at Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake, upstream of Lake Wylie. Mountain Island Lake is the drinking water source for Charlotte.

Coal ash has remained a hot topic since. Groups like the Riverkeeper Foundation call for cleanup of the ash ponds, saying more than one third of all coal ash in North Carolina sits at three sites on the Catawba near Charlotte, including one on Lake Wylie. Duke has argued the sites along the Catawba are maintained properly and don’t pose a public health crisis.

In 2015, Duke was fined $102 million for Clean Water Act violations related to handling coal ash after a spill on the Dan River in North Carolina. One of the five coal plants involved in that decision is in Mount Holly, on the northern part of Lake Wylie.

While cleanup at Riverbend and a Columbia-area site were agreed to, litigation continues on ponds at Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie and Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman. The discovery phase wrapped up in February.

"We have two sites down, two to go," Perkins said.

Perkins says putting coal ash along major waterways is “a bad, dangerous location” threatening drinking water.

"One of the sites that's left is on Lake Wylie,” he said. “And right downstream is Rock Hill and York County's water intake, serving 100,000 people."

More to do

Having a river on the endangered list can help groups like the Riverkeeper Foundationincrease public awareness about issues.

"What they really focus on is endangerment around some issue that has come up,” Perkins said. “In 2008, we had the worst drought on record, and there were some water use decisions being made. It was the time to really do something about it. There was an opportunity."

It was the same with the coal ash listing years later.

"We finally had some closure decisions coming up," Perkins said. “With coal ash you have the potential for the river to be really endangered, potentially permanently."

If it weren’t based somewhat on current events, rivers like the Colorado likely would top the list every year, Perkins said. It would become a “pretty stagnant list.”

"It's a process," Perkins said.

The Catawba missing from the list in recent years doesn’t mean there’s a lack of important work in protecting it. It also doesn’t mean all past ails are cured.

"I wouldn't say the lack of a listing of the Catawba is indicative of improvement," Perkins said.

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