Fort Mill Times

Our opinion: Popularity of the Catawba River might be growing too fast in Fort Mill

Melissa Cherry mcherry@heraldonl

This summer’s surge in recreational use of the Catawba River is a terrific reminder about a local natural resource that could all too easily be taken for granted. However, the old saying about too much of a good thing also comes to mind.

Recreation and tourism leaders in York County say activity on the Catawba has grown exponentially in less than 10 years, due in large part to development along the river. One key piece of the development is Riverwalk, the previous site of the 1,000-acre Celanese plant, just across the river from Fort Mill on the Rock Hill side. A number of businesses have capitalized on — and help fuel, it appears — the renewed interest in the river. These savvy entrepreneurs set up kiosks to rent kayaks and inner tubes customers can use to explore and enjoy the river at the pace that suits them.

On the Fort Mill side, at the access area created and maintained by property owner Duke Energy, Sunday seems the prime day for business. This is where the too much of a good thing element comes in. The rentals are so popular that every Sunday this summer, the parking area at the site is filled to capacity and overflow parking extends to either side of the narrow road leading into the river park all the way out to New Grey Rock Road.

Not all the visitors are there to rent kayaks and tubes, but based on what we could see on some recent visits, most are. Not that we have anything against those folks coming out to enjoy themselves, or the business profiting from the opportunity. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the catch-22 is that the river’s attraction to these enthusiastic tube and kayak renters is denying access to others. Many people like to enjoy the river by fishing and picnicking on the banks, strolling the nature trail, or enjoying the view from one of the two observation points. There’s simply no room for many of those folks on Sundays lately.

When Duke Energy developed the park, which used to be little more than a gravel topped parking area and a boat launch, it created an impressive amenity. The asphalt parking lot alone was a big improvement, but the nature trail gives it a tranquil touch and makes it possible to someday connect the park to the Carolina Thread Trail. With this new found popularity though, it’s time for Duke to upgrade the park. Expanding the parking lot would be a good start. Permanent restrooms are long overdue as are trash collection containers, including ones designated for recycling. Trash and broken glass are too common a site that mars the natural beauty of the area and placing and maintaining collection bins shouldn’t be out of reach for a well resourced utility like Duke.

There also must be some consideration to regulating the rental business there. We don’t say this lightly because we believe business should be encouraged, especially when it brings people outdoors for family friendly fun. Conversely, there needs to be consideration for those who want to enjoy the river in other ways. Perhaps the hours of the rental business can be cut back, or a certain number of parking spaces set aside for visitors who are not renting kayaks or tubes.

Finally, we want to point out what a great opportunity this interest in the river for recreation presents when it comes to education. We wonder how many visitors remain unaware about the Catawba River’s vital role in the ecosystem and our water supply. Perhaps the kiosk can display and hand out information for the Catawba RiverKeepers, which can always use new, enthusiastic volunteers.

It is encouraging to see people appreciate our beautiful, cherished river that nourished the Catawba Nation and other native people for centuries before it was leveraged to power the grist mill that inspired the growth of a town that became Fort Mill. It’s also important to make sure there’s room for all who want to enjoy it.