Republished with permission from Foothills Conservancy’s Taproot Magazine
The Catawba-Wateree River flows east from McDowell County, winding through its namesake valley, fed by streams and rivers of the Blue Ridge Mountains and South Mountains, onward into a series of reservoirs of the foothills — passing through Burke, Caldwell, Alexander, and Catawba counties. As it turns south, it spills into Lake Norman, flowing through the outskirts of Charlotte and across the border into South Carolina, where it later joins with the Santee Basin before washing out to sea at Charleston.
In total, the Catawba-Wateree River flows across 225 miles through 24 counties in two states, with 5,000 combined miles of waterways, containing 11 reservoirs, 14 dams, and supplying more than two million people with drinking water.
But, without preventative measures to protect this natural resource, how many years of clean water in this crucial basin do we have left?
During the federal relicensing process of its hydroelectric power plants, Duke Energy tried to answer that question — and discovered some startling details. In preliminary studies of this river basin, researchers found that “at our current growth rate — counting for population growth, climate change, future development, and water-use needs — the system was not going to supply enough water by 2050,” said Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy. “The safe yield would not be met. That woke up a lot of people.”
In addition, the region experienced a “drought of record” in 2002 and again in 2007-2008. Duke Energy, along with the water utilities drawing water from the river system, knew they had to act. This prompted the formation of a Drought Management Advisory Group, along with a Low Inflow Protocol to be implemented during times of drought. Following that, the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group (CWWMG) was formed as a nonprofit corporation dedicated to funding projects to protect and enhance our water supply while maintaining the ecological integrity of the waterway. Duke Energy and all 18 municipal utilities that draw water from the river and its reservoirs are members. A number of successful projects have been completed by the Water Management Group, including the development of a Water Supply Master Plan.
Similarly, in 2013, Foothills Conservancy, Catawba Lands Conservancy and The Conservation Fund formed the Catawba-Wateree Clean Water Initiative to identify and protect watershed lands and forests throughout the Catawba River Basin.
“This is the reality of the situation,” said Vicki Taylor, environmental advisor to CWWMG and lead staff of the Catawba-Wateree Clean Water Initiative. “Even though we’ve always been pretty complacent about being a water-rich state and region, the reality is that we need to change the way we manage our water now so the region can continue to grow and thrive. We need to understand how climate change and development affect our water supply, and figure out how and where watershed land conservation can help protect our water before we experience any major negative impacts to the quality and abundance of our water.”
In early fall 2018, RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, completed a study to determine key, strategic areas where the Initiative should focus its watershed conservation efforts. Funded by the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the Water Research Foundation, and a grant to Foothills Conservancy from Duke Energy’s Water Resources Fund, this study examined the future impacts of land use changes and climate change on the Catawba-Wateree Basin. Its results will provide recommendations
for target conservation areas, along with suggestions for efficient and cost-effective ways to protect both water quality and quantity throughout the watershed.
What’s so important about land conservation when speaking about water?
“In places where the land is developed — cities, towns, neighborhoods — water flows over impervious surfaces,” Andrew said, artificial landscapes like asphalt, concrete, brick, and stone, “and directly into stream channels, oftentimes picking up pollutants along the way.” This may increase the amount of water in rivers and reservoirs, but usually only for short periods of time. Little or none of this water is stored in the landscape for discharge at a later date.
“Forested landscapes do a much better job absorbing and filtering that water so it can be cleansed and discharged through creeks and streams over periods of weeks or months — and this can be very important for our water supplies during long, dry periods,” he continued. “This is why you still see many creeks flowing during drought, because of the stored water. This study is the first step in developing a strategy to protect some of the most important forested areas for water storage. It’s helping us to better understand the hydrologic system across the entire Catawba River Basin and to locate the most important watershed landscapes to protect. Next, we need to develop partnerships at the local and regional levels to make a positive impact.”
With the results of this recent study beginning to take shape its now up to the study’s partners to collaborate with diverse stakeholders in the Catawba-Wateree Basin to plan and fund extensive conservation efforts of critical watershed lands. And these partnerships, this plan, the future of our region’s water — it all begins with education, Vicki said. “It’s something that a lot of folks really have not considered — that water in places like Charlotte or Columbia is connected to what happens on the land miles and miles away in the Blue Ridge Mountains or South Mountains, in the headwaters of the river system.”
Andrew agreed, adding that future conservation and preservation efforts require a committed team effort from all communities along this basin — all 24 counties across two states. “A droplet of water that ends up in your glass from your faucet might have originated in the national forest, far beyond your county or municipality,” Andrew said. “This water doesn’t come into existence at the municipal water utility intakes. The entire basin is connected, from upstream to downstream — and it’s a much bigger process, a much bigger landscape than just the creek right beside your house or the lake that you visit for recreation.”
Over the coming months, the land trusts involved in the Catawba-Wateree Clean Water Initiative will use a grant from the Healthy Watersheds Consortium, which is funded by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to transform the results of the study into an action plan. Though the Initiative and its many partners realize it will take years to spread awareness, advocating for the future of the region’s water is crucial for future generations and for the region’s economy to thrive.
“The next step,” Vicki said, “while building this plan that includes counties, towns, utility companies, state and federal agencies and those working in agriculture and recreation — is to arrive at a consensus on how to put this plan into place and how to fund the continued protection of the Catawba-Wateree River.”