Fort Mill Times

Lake Wylie is on the rise. Why it may take a while, but could ripple for generations.

Jon Smith paddles his kayak from the landing below the dam in Fort Mill on his way down to the River Walk landing in Rock Hill. Duke is planning to raise the target water level in lakes Wylie, Norman and James six inches each summer, affecting recreational water flows from Lake Wylie for Catawba River paddlers downstream.
Jon Smith paddles his kayak from the landing below the dam in Fort Mill on his way down to the River Walk landing in Rock Hill. Duke is planning to raise the target water level in lakes Wylie, Norman and James six inches each summer, affecting recreational water flows from Lake Wylie for Catawba River paddlers downstream. Fort Mill Times file photo

It’ll be a while, but Lake Wylie is on the rise.

By six inches each summer, to be exact.

On Jan. 22, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a Duke Energy license amendment related to water elevations and recreational flow releases on Lake Wylie. The approval allows Duke to raise the target water level in lakes Wylie, Norman and James six inches each summer. It also updates drought response in the region, and changes recreational water flows from Lake Wylie for Catawba River paddlers downstream.

It will, however, be a while before Wylie and other lakes see changes.

“The summer normal target level elevations will become effective following modifications to Wateree Dam,” said Kim Crawford, Duke spokesperson, “effective no earlier than Dec. 31, 2025.”

The higher target lake elevations and drought response are efforts by Duke and stakeholders, largely municipal water suppliers, to extend the usable life of the Catawba River. Or the amount of time the river reasonably can be expected to support the growing community along its banks. A looming deadline once projected 2048 as the year for a potential water crisis, but it was extended well into the next century through efforts similar to the ones recently approved.

“This process for approval included approval of all 70 parties to (Duke’s federal) comprehensive re-licensing agreement, obtaining new water quality certifications from North Carolina and South Carolina, followed by FERC evaluation and approval,” Crawford said.

More than a decade ago, Duke gathered water providers, natural resource agencies, nonprofits, homeowner groups, environmental organizations and others from throughout the Catawba basin to hammer out an application for a new federal hydroelectric license. One needed to operate power plants along the river.

Federal regulators didn’t issue a license until 2015, for 40 years, which Duke then challenged in search of a 50-year license. As that legal matter progressed, Duke went ahead in search of approvals for certain parts of the agreement.

In December, FERC approved a recreation management plan. Improvements to Allison Creek, Buster Boyd, Dutchmans Creek and South Point access areas, along with a Rock Hill park, should be complete within five years. Improvements at Fort Mill Access Area on the river just below the dam, should be done within 10 years.

Along with raising the target elevations and improving drought response, the new approval would change recreation flow releases from Lake Wylie from 6,000 to 3,000 cubic feet per second. Initially Duke and recreation groups planned for the stronger flows, but feedback from a growing community of paddlers — Rock Hill has several commercial paddling outfits just downstream of Wylie — found the higher amount was too much.

The reduced flow change is effective this year.

“The change in flow releases is intended to appeal to a wider range of paddlers, of all skill levels, and enhance public safety,” Crawford said.

Duke ran data on the higher summer target elevations and found the risk of flooding, their top concern with keeping more water in the basin, wasn’t dramatically different. Wylie, Norman and James are the largest containers in the 11-lake basin. Keeping them higher at the beginning of summer, when drought may hit, can prevent problems heading into the fall and later.

Several times in recent years boat ramps on Wylie and elsewhere were closed due to drought, canceling events. Homeowners along the lake also end up with their boats on the lake bed and docks inaccessible during severe drought.

What’s being done?

Recreational improvements on Lake Wylie, approved by federal regulators in December, include:

▪ Restrooms, picnic facilities, paved parking and a mile of trail at Allison Creek Access Area

▪ Restrooms at Buster Boyd Access Area

▪ Restrooms, picnic facilities and wildlife viewing facility at Fort Mill Access Area

▪ Bank fishing trail with fishing stations, picnic facilities, a swim beach, restroom and parking at a Rock Hill park

▪ A new canoe/kayak launch and 10 gravel parking spaces at Dutchmans Creek Access Area

▪ Trails, two fishing piers, a bank fishing area, picnic facilities, swim beach, restrooms and more paved parking at South Point Access Area

New changes include recreation flow reductions from Lake Wylie, from 6,000 to 3,000 cubic feet per second, effective this year. The target water elevation of lakes Wylie, Norman and James will increase by six inches when upgrades are complete downstream at Wateree Dam, no earlier than Dec. 31. The changes also will improve Duke’s low inflow protocol, or drought management, system standardizing regional responses to drought. The low inflow protocol already is in use.

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