Tar Heel Tattler - November 2006

Cities will be up the river without a ladle
By Edward Martin

Parting the water may have been easy for Moses, but parting with it can be hard for anyone else. A preacher testifying at a hearing in Valdese on a proposal to divert 22 million gallons a day from the Catawba River to Concord and Kannapolis asked, “What would Jesus do?” He was booed off the stage.

Interbasin transfers are when water is taken from one river system, used, treated and then deposited into another, usually because it’s closer. Places that use the river from which the water is taken usually oppose it. A decade ago, North Carolina lost a legal battle to keep Virginia Beach, Va., from taking 45 million gallons a day from Lake Gaston north of Raleigh.

Hearings on the Catawba proposal have attracted as many as 700 shouting, sign-wielding Tar Heel opponents, not to mention protests from some South Carolinians, who accuse North Carolina of poaching this time. “It’s as if we have now turned to South Carolina and said, ‘Do unto others as we were done unto,” says Donna Lisenby, executive director of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Catawba in both states. It opposes the transfers.

The Cabarrus County towns want to take water from the Catawba, which flows west of Charlotte, then south through Rock Hill, S.C., toward Columbia. The water would be discharged east into the Pee Dee River basin.

It’s not a new concept. Three major interbasin transfers have been approved in North Carolina: 24 million gallons a day from the Haw River basin west of Raleigh to the Neuse River basin east of it; 33 million from the Catawba to the Rocky River east of Charlotte; and 30 million from the Deep River south of Greensboro to the Haw basin. What has changed is burgeoning development and demand. Well-watered towns along the Catawba view the river as an economic-recruiting trump card.

The N.C. General Assembly likely will have the issue dumped in its lap next year, probably with requests to block all interbasin transfers. Some believe, however, that a blanket prohibition could clobber economic development. Scores of Tar Heel towns straddle basins, and 150 or more small transfers already take place. The state regulates only transfers of 2 million gallons a day or more.

Meanwhile, expect more shouts and signs. The Catawba request will go before the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, which has ultimate say-so, in January.