The Catawba River was named the most endangered river in the United States in 2008, and the situation has not improved since then. Current trends of development are only exacerbating the problem. 170 millions of gallons of water were pumped from the Catawba River to other river basins every day and the number is estimated to reach 458 millions of gallons by 2058. The demand not only comes from residents in both North Carolina and South Carolina, but also from the 11 hydropower plants, 4 coal plants, and 2 nuclear power facilities along with the many paper plants, textile factories and chemical facilities on the shores of the Catawba. If water withdrawals are not managed properly, it will only hurt the economy and health of the 2 millions people that reside in both states.
However, water quantity is not the only problem the basin is facing. Water quality is another urgent problem that presents challenges to the community. The severity of the issue can be seen in the quick reference chart for advisories issued by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services.
Currently, there are more than 550 permitted pollution discharges along the river. Stormwater runoff and sewage spills also impact water quality negatively. According to a recent report from July to September in 2015 on stream use from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Service, most areas in the Mecklenburg county are either partially supporting (yellow) or impaired (brown) based on their Stream Use-Support Index (SUSI). SUSI is based on a variety of factors, including measurements of fecal coliform bacteria, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, and pollutants such as phosphorus, copper, lead. Even though the rating has improved, more policies should be implemented to reduce pollution discharge.
The Dan River Coal Ash Spill in 2014 captured people’s attention to coal ash waste pollution in rivers. An estimated 82,000 tons of ash had been released from a break in a stormwater pipe at the Dan River power plant owned by Duke Energy in Eden, North Carolina. Moreover, about 24 to 27 million gallons of contaminated basin water were also discharged into the river. The Catawba River is also threatened by coal ash. Two ash ponds in Mount Holly, NC, operated by Duke Power along the shores of the Catawba are listed in EPA’s list of 44 High Hazard Potential Units. These two ash ponds discharge into Mountain Island Lake, which is the primary source of drinking water for approximately 750,000 people in the Charlotte area. There are also additional ash ponds on Lakes Norman and Lake Wylie that will affect many more communities that depend on the river. These ponds are permitted to discharge many carcinogens such as arsenic and selenium at concentrations that exceed the EPA Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water. With the high demand in water use, withdrawals of surface water will only exacerbate the problem. Coal ash can lead to high concentrations of heavy metals in vegetations and ingestion of toxins by local wildlife. Thus, it is important for stakeholders to become more alarmed by these problems with water quality when addressing issues in the Catawba River before it is too late and affects the lives of millions of people in North Carolina and South Carolina.