To see the future of recreation on Lake Wylie, just look downstream.
Rock Hill is enjoying a riparian renaissance. So much so, the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission brought its outdoor education supervisor in for a recent meeting to see what that city is doing well, and what may be coming for communities all along the Catawba River.
“I kind of felt like it was my river,” said Tom Bell, recalling his arrival in Rock Hill in 1996. “Nobody was really using it. But I had this thought that, more people need to enjoy this.”
Now, they are. The city did its part with additions such as Riverwalk and launch sites, dating back to River Park opening in 1999. City staff added programming for canoeing and kayaking. The city also got a boost when Duke Energy brought stakeholders together more than a decade ago to look at its federal re-licensing application.
“When that happened, it pulled so many stakeholders together to talk about what the river means to everybody,” Bell said.
Now the trails to riverfront site see up to 9,000 visitors a month. The city has transitioned to safety training, because there are five commercial outfitters running on the river. Bell recently had to stand in like with a kayak to use a launch. It wasn’t exactly 1996 anymore.
“We’re seeing tubers now floating down the river with coolers,” Bell said. “It’s not the same river.”
Duke says the excitement in Rock Hill can be replicated.
“We’re going to have changes like that occur on all 11 lakes,” said Jeff Lineberger, hydro strategy and licensing director with Duke, which manages the lakes along the Catawba River.
The re-licensing was due in 2008, and submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2006. Yet a license wasn’t issued until late 2015. The license still hasn’t officially begun, after Duke appealed the 40-year approval looking for 50 years.
If Duke gets its 50-year license, the move will set off about $30 million in improvements in the next 20 years. There will be 55 new or expanded access areas, based on the re-licensing agreement. Some figures are contingent on the full 50 years.
“A lot of that is front-loaded in the first five years,” Lineberger said.
Lake Wylie alone had improvements written into the re-licensing agreement for Buster Boyd Access Area to add restrooms, 48 more acres at Allison Creek Access Area, restrooms and trails at Fort Mill Access Area, park property in Rock Hill, an emergency access site in York County, a new access site in Mecklenburg County, leases on two islands totaling 174 acres to recreation groups, and several more kayak launches, parking areas and camping sites.
“We’re going to see big changes at the access areas,” Lineberger said.
New recreation investments will continue serving boaters, but also “all those other folks who don’t have boats but still want to enjoy the river,” he said, such as campers, picnickers and wildlife viewers.
“It’s really about, what do we need to do with the river to make it better for everybody?” Lineberger said. “And that means change.”
Rock Hill sees it. Now there are river rescue trainings on the river with more people using it. Other issues to address include safety measures companies may need using public access points.
“We don’t want to squash private business,” Bell said. “We just want them to be responsible.”
Something he wouldn’t have imagined back in 1996 — could there be too many people using the river? — is worth asking now.
“That’s a good thing, but there’s a limit to that use,” Bell said. “And we need to all ask ourselves what that limit is.”
Stakeholders are optimistic. Bell said he and others have contacted Duke about flowing water from the dam for certain events or safety training. The steady recreation flows scheduled into the re-licensing agreement are a part of the recreation puzzle.
“The recreational flows are what really allowed the outfitters to have a consistent business,” Bell said.
Those flows show what cooperation can do. Initially releases were twice as strong as they are now. Duke heard paddlers saying it was creating conditions too difficult for novice paddlers.
“We got feedback from outfitters that that was too much,” said Mark Oakley, licensing project manager for Duke.
Former York County Council member Rick Lee, now a member of the bi-state river commission, said small steps to plan ahead are helping. Like when the U.S. 21 bridge from Fort Mill to Rock Hill was redone, and residents asked for a lower profile to add sight lines to the river.
“You see all these dots floating down, all these reds and greens and yellows,” Lee said of tubers. “It’s amazing how many people began to realize, wow, we’ve got a river here.”
A canoe and kayak launch at the Catawba Indian Nation is the first official Lake Wylie-area improvement from the relicensing list to be complete. Another at Landsford Canal State Park should be done by year’s end.
A York County hospitality tax advisory group recently set three priorities for tourism investment in the coming decades. Two of them were Lake Wylie and the Catawba River. The county is working on swim beach and other improvements at Ebenezer Park, too, and partnering with Duke on Allison Creek work. Tega Cay is working to create Catawba Park, a waterfront recreation site leaders there say can drive commercial growth for decades.
From supporting textile mills in the past to drinking water and recreation in the present, Bell said the river always has been integral to his city’s future.
“Rock Hill wouldn’t be Rock Hill without the Catawba River,” Bell said.