A Cry for the Catawba

Published here with permission from The Charlotte Observer.

Cry for the Catawba

PART 1: Oct. 28, 2007

Drought and development threaten the source of life for our cities

By Elizabeth Leland    eleland@charlotteobserver.com

To understand the Catawba River and why our future depends on it, you must first hike up an old wagon trail through the Blue Ridge Mountains, push past brambles and over fallen limbs, then scramble down a hillside deep within a hollow.

The only sign that anyone has ventured this far before are two rusty 55-gallon drums riddled with bullet holes, the remains of a moonshiner's still.


Here, in a lowly puddle, the Catawba River is born.

Cool, clear water seeps up ever so silently from a spring beneath the ground into a bed of rotting leaves. It trickles away slowly, almost imperceptibly, a thin thread lost beneath the rhododendron.

Most of us know the Catawba far downstream, where we have dammed it up and created huge lakes, where we fish and play and live in luxury homes. For years, it has quietly sustained us. We have drawn our drinking water from it and dumped our waste into it, used it to irrigate lawns, cool nuclear reactors and fuel factories.

Every time we turn on a light, or brew iced tea, or flush toilets, that's the Catawba. It is one of America's hardest-working rivers. Yet only in a drought do many of us even consider what it does for us.

It may sound far-fetched, as beautiful and abundant as the river is, but if we continue making demands, the Catawba could one day run so low and so dirty, you could turn on your faucet and nothing would come out.

Water, the experts say, is one of this century's biggest environmental challenges.

The Catawba is not polluted the way New York's Hudson River once was. But the drought has made it clear that we can't keep going the way we're going, consuming so much water and electricity, and destroying the forests that help keep our river clean. There soon may be too many of us and not enough of the Catawba.

That is why South Carolina is fighting North Carolina over rights to the water. (I'll write about that next Sunday.)

And it's why up here in the mountains of McDowell County, where the Catawba is a river in name only, an elderly man has made it his duty to protect the source. He is Arthur Joe Hemphill, and he let me hike across his property to where the river -- and our journey along it -- begins.

Ancient treasure

If you're new to this area, you may wonder why the Catawba is called a river. On the state map, it's obviously a necklace of 11 lakes connected by a few free-flowing stretches.On a map from 1900, you can see the river that the Catawba once was. It flowed as a river for millions of years, attracting Indian settlers, and later Europeans, and then James B. Duke with his plan to control the waters and the land around it.

His company, Duke Power, engineered the Catawba into a series of lakes by damming up the water to produce hydroelectricity. The headwaters are one of the few sections that still flow like a river.

Hemphill wants to keep it that way.

The Source

We met over coffee one chilly morning in February at the Front Porch Grill in Black Mountain. His friends call him Joe, and he invited me to call him that, too. He is a retired police chief, "just an old country boy," he said.

When he speaks of the Catawba, and his passion to protect it, he speaks with wisdom born from years of watching development transform these mountains where his forebears settled in the 1700s.

"Pollution is everywhere," he told me, and surely you have to agree, especially around Charlotte and other cities along the river.

"Now, the pollution is starting up this way." There was sadness in his voice as he continued, "It's worse than terrible to a boy like me who loves the forest."

If we can't keep the headwaters pure, he believes, there's no use trying downstream.

I rode up the mountain with Joe, who is 76, and his wife, Mary, to see where the river begins. Three main springs feed the Catawba, and the one near their land is the farthest west and considered to be The Source.

We talked along the way about the ecology of forests and how folks in these parts used to take their lush, beautiful woods for granted. About three-fourths of McDowell County is wooded, much of it national forest. As pretty as the trees look, they also serve a purpose, as they do everywhere: slowing down rainwater and controlling erosion.

Developers are devouring the private land, converting rugged, steep forest into roads and houses, and in many places there's little soil left to soak up water during heavy rains.

It's easier to get away with that type of development in the Piedmont, where the land is flatter. Up in the mountains, it could cause flooding downriver for 100 miles, all the way to Charlotte.

A very important puddle

Joe and Mary believe the land around the source should not be tampered with. It is home to black bear, wild turkey, deer and other animals they feel as much responsibility for as they do for the river.They might have made $1 million selling their 328 acres to a developer. Instead, they sold an easement on their property to Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy for $465,000 and tax benefits. The agreement protects the land forever from development and allows Joe and Mary and their heirs to use it.

They didn't do it for their children. Joe and Mary don't have children. They did it for your children and mine.

"I want to go to my reward when I die," Joe said, "and know that it will be safe for future generations."

The water runs so pure at the source, Joe said he drank it for years and would still drink it if he had the strength to hike up. I left him and Mary at a picnic table beside the river and walked up with their friend Chip Craig as my guide. It took us less than an hour, along the old wagon trail, past brambles and over fallen limbs. When we reached the ridge, Chip pointed to a puddle 100 yards or so below.

The Catawba River.

This was it. The source of the mighty Catawba, source of electricity and water to more than 1.3 million people, beginning its meandering descent through mountains, piedmont and coastal plain to the Atlantic Ocean.

This was it. A puddle.

With so many rotting leaves and limbs in the water, I wasn't about to drink it. I scooped some up in a jar. I keep it on my desk. It looks nearly as clear as bottled water from the vending machine.

Next to it, I keep a sample from Mountain Island Lake that I took not far from the intake pipes for Charlotte's water supply. The bottom of that jar is coated with filth.

Wider, deeper, stronger

I drove back to Black Mountain a few weeks later to hike with Chip in the opposite direction, following the river from Joe and Mary's property down toward the town of Old Fort.

It was a pleasant walk, sheltered from the sun by rhododendron and hardwoods. Chip, a Realtor in Black Mountain, loves these woods as dearly as Joe and Mary do. He detoured off the trail and pointed out gashes in a tree trunk about 8 feet up: claw marks of a black bear.

As Joe's property gave way to Pisgah National Forest, we passed streams feeding the river from left and right, swelling the Catawba to about 6 feet across. Hundreds of these streams nourish the Catawba, forcing the river wider and deeper and stronger.

Here at the headwaters, the river usually flows ankle-deep, a lazy, shallow brook meandering over and around rocks. The old wagon trail tags along beside it, and in a few places the trail crosses the river.

We crossed with it, jumping from rock to rock or wading. After a mile or so, the rhododendron thinned to a clearing, and we saw blue sky again.

Jutting into the river there are remains of a stone dam built by an entrepreneur who tried to harness this part of the Catawba for electricity the way Duke Power did downstream. Col. Dan Adams abandoned his plans after a drought in 1925, when the Catawba ran so low, grass grew on exposed river bottoms.

The river forces its way between what's left of the dam, a passage a few feet wide. It swells again, then suddenly drops from sight.

We heard a roar.

We hurried down the trail, and as we rounded a corner, the air felt cool and thick with mist. We pushed through an opening in the bushes to see a waterfall, plunging 70 feet down a towering rock face into a natural amphitheater. The explosion was so loud, we had to shout to be heard.

These are the Upper Falls, the jewel of the Catawba River.

We sat on large rocks dressed in soft green moss, mesmerized by this force of nature. It was hard to imagine in this hidden corner of forest that the water rushing down these rocks would find its way into the urban center that is now Lake Norman.

Here, wilderness cradles the river.

From a roar to a trickle

That was in March.I hiked back up at the end of September with Ron Richardson and Nick Stafford of Old Fort. We approached from below this time, using ropes to scale some of the rocks.

This time, there was no roar. This time, it sounded like just another stream flowing down the mountain.

The falls had lost their power.

Water fell in only a few places, so thinly it seemed as if we could see each line of droplets. The moss I slipped on in March was faded and brittle, and we didn't need to shout to be heard.

Over the six months since I first visited, about 8 inches of rain fell. That's nearly 16 inches less than normal. The springs that supply the tributaries of the Catawba were drying up. We hiked over creek beds with nothing in them but rocks.

As low as Lake Norman has shrunk from the drought, it's still a lake with deep water. Here, the river has dwindled to a stream.

Down the mountain

From the Upper Falls, the Catawba picks up speed, tumbling through woods and over rocks to the nearby Lower Falls, a graceful, cascading waterfall that stretches over a series of drops.

The river passes the remains of another, larger dam, and by a stone building that served as Col. Adams' power plant in the early 1900s.

After a few more miles through the countryside, it joins with another branch not far from the McDonald's in Old Fort. From there, it flows north and east for 20 miles, dropping over smaller waterfalls, through woods, under Interstate 40, past houses, factories and fields until it empties into Lake James.

These headwaters once flowed undisturbed. But that is changing.

Rusty Rozzelle, who manages water quality in Charlotte, is watching what happens here because what happens upstream affects us downstream.

The next few years, conservationists predict, will determine the fate of much of the undeveloped land that's left -- and of the river that runs through it.

Story Behind the Stories

Reporters Bruce Henderson and Elizabeth Leland grew up on opposite ends of the Catawba River. Bruce was raised in Morganton not far from the source, and fished in Lake James. Elizabeth sailed in the Cooper River near her home in Charleston, where some of the water coming from the mountains empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Photographer John Simmons grew up fishing on the Mississippi, which flowed about a mile from his home in St. Louis.

How You Can Help the Catawba

Over eight days, we'll give you choices about ways you can help the river.• Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina took out a loan this summer to buy land leading to the Upper and Lower Falls, and hopes to sell the land to the Forest Service so the public can go there. The conservancy needs contributions and is offering guided hikes. www.foothillsconservancy.org, 828-437-9930, 135 1/2 W. Union St., Morganton, NC 28680.

• Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is dedicated to protecting this area. www.appalachian.org, 828-253-0095, 34 Wall St., Suite 502, Asheville, NC 28801.

`River Docs': A Catawba River Narrative

A new exhibit documents our connection to the river through photography, fabric installation and interactive media. It features work by photographers Byron Baldwin, Raymond Grubb and Nancy Pierce; installation artists Marek Ranis and Maja Godlewska; and digital artist Mike Wirth.

WHEN: Nov. 15 -- Feb. 22; Opening reception, Nov. 15, 7--9 p.m., with performances and historical presentations.

WHERE: The Light Factory, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.


704-333-9755, www.lightfactory.org
PART 2: Oct. 29, 2007

One Hero for Lake James

by Elizabeth Leland
Nowhere along the Catawba River does the debate over the land stir such passion as on Lake James.  It's been called the most beautiful lake on the East Coast, and you can see why. Blue-green water quietly laps the shore, and in the distance the Blue Ridge Mountains rise majestic: Table Rock, Hawksbill, Shortoff and the highest peak of all, Grandfather Mountain.

Only recently have big subdivisions pushed in, the way they have for years on Lake Norman and Lake Wylie. There are so many houses on those two lakes, there's only one beach left on each where the public can swim.

Here, 30 miles or so below the headwaters, a parcel of land 10 times the size of Central Park has been set aside for our use, and we have an unlikely hero to thank.

That's Paul Braun.

I first visited Lake James in the mid-1970s, when it was so deserted my college friends and I boated at night without fear of running into anybody else.

Paul Braun was in high school then and would ride his horse 10 miles from Morganton to fish and swim. The woods nearby were used for timber and hunting, and locals pretty much had the run of the land.

"No Trespassing" signs eventually went up, followed by "For Sale" signs.

I had heard about Braun for several years and finally met him a few months ago. He took me to a boat landing, where he recalled two things that happened one afternoon in 1998 that turned him into a crusader.

He said he took off from the landing in a boat with his wife and son. They were drifting in a cove, watching for wildlife, when two bald eagles flew overhead.

Braun had never seen eagles in the wild in Western North Carolina. He followed them ashore, hoping to see their nest. He found instead a new road and survey tape marking lots. Eight hundred lots, he discovered.

Someone was about to put a development the size of a small town on one of the most beautiful spots on Lake James.

Braun was furious. He motored back to the landing, where the second thing happened that changed him: He heard a wildlife officer tell a mother to get her two boys out of the water. Of 150 miles of shoreline, the public was allowed to swim along only 100 feet.

"They just shut us all out," Braun said. "It's a public lake that became private. It makes me sick."

Birth of a mission

Braun, who is 47, works second shift as an electrician. He's outspoken. He's more likely to show up on his motorcycle with a bandana around his head than in a business suit.With only his passion as a guide, he became the voice of the lake.

He founded Citizens to Save Lake James and started agitating. Other groups joined in, and after six years the state and federal governments had allocated more than $30 million to buy land. Crescent Resources, a Duke Energy subsidiary, made a one-time gift of $12.5 million off the price of some of the land to help the deal go through.

About 9,000 acres were set aside for the public.

Your land?

What Braun did for Lake James, others are doing for the headwaters, and along a stretch of the Catawba south of Lake Wylie, and in other less-populated sections of the river basin. They are racing to raise money to buy land before it's all gone.

In April, when Braun showed me around Lake James, he pointed out my car window more than a dozen times and announced with glee:

"This is your land."

Next, he steered me through a new subdivision where the streets are so steep, I felt as if my car would run down into the lake. We drove through another development, and he pointed out a sliver of sandy beach. That's where he taught his son to swim.

On a poplar tree I saw a dainty yellow sign decorated with pink flowers: "This beach is private property. Thanks!"

Braun didn't notice the sign at first, and when he did he turned quiet.

"This should be your land," he muttered.

It's important, Braun said, to remember how Crescent Resources came to own the land. Duke Power bought the property in the early 1900s for as little as $1 an acre to build the lake and create electricity.

Landowners gave up their homes for the public good, some against their will. A lot of the land was never used for electricity, on Lake James and on down the Catawba. Braun believes it should be public.

"We don't want," he said, "another Lake Norman."

A very different lake

Lake Norman is 65 miles and a world away from Lake James. To get there, the Catawba flows east through Morganton, widens into Lake Rhodhiss and Lake Hickory, then takes a dramatic turn south through Lookout Shoals Lake.Lake Norman was dammed in 1963, the last and biggest of the lakes Duke Power built, 40 years after Lake James. Unlike Lake James, much of its natural shoreline has disappeared.

Tuesday: Reporter Bruce Henderson meets a man who grew up on Lake Norman but made a different choice about his lake. Part 2 of 8

Understanding Lake James

Lake James is named for James B. Duke, one of the founders of Duke Energy. It was built over seven years beginning in 1916 and required three dams -- at the Catawba River, the Linville River and Paddy Creek. Islands in the lake were once hilltops. The lake is more than 9 feet below full pond.


6,812 acres and 150 miles of shoreline west of Morganton.


Lake James is the cleanest lake on the Catawba.


Swim and camp at Lake James State Park.www.mcdowellnc.org


Two organizations dedicated to protecting Lake James are:

• Lake James Environmental Association, established in 1973. www.ljea.org.

• Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. www.foothillsconservancy.org or 828-437-9930.


PART 3: Oct. 30, 2007   

Developer's view of Lake Norman 

By Bruce Henderson

I wondered how Lake Norman got to be the Catawba's most developed lake, so Rick Howard took me on a tour of his past and future.

We drove down Langtree Road, the peninsula in southern Iredell County that Howard's family moved to in 1963. That was the year Duke Power flooded 50 square miles of Piedmont clay, creating the largest body of fresh water in the state.

As a boy, Howard piloted his little johnboat after dark by only a half-dozen shoreline lights.

"We were in wilderness," he said. "And then it changed."

Howard, now 54, will soon break ground on an $800 million condo-hotel-retail complex off Interstate 77 near his childhood home. A 12-story lakefront hotel will rise on the field that, as a teenager, he fertilized with chicken manure.

Duke built Norman, like the other Catawba lakes, to make electricity. But by creating 520 miles of shoreline near a growing city, it also set the pace for real estate development. Weekend cabins gave way to the handsome homes that embroider the shoreline. Sleek boats with more square footage than some of the old cabins bob at marinas.

I know the territory. My wife and I moved to Davidson, a few miles away, in 1985.

We're the kind who cuss the traffic and grieve the pastures lost to endless waves of new houses. Yet we can't help but enjoy new restaurants and supermarkets and movie theaters.

Howard believes he's helping shape the lake's destiny.

"Something was going to happen here," he told me, "and we have a chance to do it right."

From electricity to real estate

Duke Power designed Norman, its final Catawba reservoir, to wring the last watt of hydropower from the river. But the lake also put Duke in the real estate business.The utility first bought land for the lake in the 1920s for less than $44 an acre, says a corporate history, then bought more as construction of the lake began decades later. All told, Duke bought nearly 64,000 acres for a 32,000-acre lake.

Some owners would sell only large tracts, leaving Duke with more land than it needed. Duke later dropped plans for some power plants, and their sites also became surplus acreage.

Duke owned half of Norman's waterfront when it filled. It first leased lakefront lots for $120 a year, then sold thousands in the 1970s for about $8,000 each.

Lots now go for at least $350,000 "just to say you're on the water," said Cornelius real estate broker Frank Free. More desirable lots sell for $500,000 to $600,000.

The lake has become its own diverse community -- retired Charlotteans, New Yorkers drawn to the merest glimpse of water, Californians thrilled to find what $1 million can still buy.

The water is wide and generally clean, the sunsets stunning.

But failing sewage systems sometimes chase swimmers from coves. Just Sunday, a broken pipe in Cornelius dumped 27 gallons of sewage into the lake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities said.

Traffic snarls rival any Charlotte nightmare, and weekend boaters whip the lake into a froth.

Rivers of eroding mud flow into the water from construction sites.

And drought shows what money can't buy. The receding shoreline, its clay banks exposed, oddly recalls the lake's old filling-up days.

Fear of excess

Rick Howard is part of the problem, his critics say.

His Langtree at the Lake will only make traffic worse, they say. The large scale of the 127-acre complex will dwarf the homes near it.

"It's going to have an extremely negative impact on our overall quality of life, due to the traffic," said Dennis Coogle, who lives on the Langtree peninsula and challenged Howard's plan. "It's going to change it beyond anybody's imagination."

Changes around Langtree are already happening at warp speed.

Howard drove me through Mount Mourne, the pre-Revolutionary War community just across I-77 where he spent his youngest years.

A construction crane loomed over the new corporate headquarters of Lowe's, the home-improvement retailer, where 2,000 people work.

A scraped-bare tract awaited a developer's 650 houses.

Three huge white oaks shaded grazing horses at a farm that will become Langtree's golf course.

`Good for the community'

In Langtree, Howard sees something special.With its brick, stone and timber condos, shopping, public lakefront trails and native plantings, he said, the project will be good for the community and the environment.

He could have made more money, he said, building houses like those crowding the Brawley School Road peninsula just west of Langtree.

"We looked for something to do that we felt would be good for the community," Howard said. "It wasn't about making a lot of money."

The condos will sell for $600,000 to $3 million. Marketing hasn't begun, but buyers have already reserved 150 of the initial 272 units.

And Norman will take another step toward a fate set up 40 years ago.

Wednesday: Reporter Elizabeth Leland heads to the next lake downstream, Mountain Island, Charlotte's drinking-water source.

Understanding Lake Norman

Filled in 1963, Lake Norman supports hydroelectric, coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

The look

Fashionable houses, big boats. It was 6.6 feet below full pond Monday.

Distinctive feature

A shoreline spanning 520 miles, about the distance between Charlotte and Philadelphia.

Check this out

Mecklenburg County operates three waterfront parks: Blythe Landing, Jetton Park and Ramsey Creek Park. www.parkandrec.com.

What you can do

Take part in Big Sweep, North Carolina's annual cleanup of waterways. www.ncbigsweep.org.



PART 4: Oct. 31, 2007
THE WATER WE DRINK-Silt drags at quality of water in Mountain Island Lake 
Elizabeth Leland
Sitting in the bow of a motorboat anchored near a cove in Charlotte's reservoir, I could easily imagine how we might one day run out of clean water. Even before the drought set in, this corner of Mountain Island Lake was so full of silt, only a kayak or canoe could pass through.

I went out in March with two men who monitor water quality for the county, and much of the time I didn't understand the numbers they jotted down about the chemistry of the water. But here, at the entrance to McDowell Creek, I didn't need data.

It looked like dirty dishwater.

I scooped up a sample in a jar, and all sorts of gunk swirled around, eventually settling into a grimy, greenish-gray puddle at the bottom. It's what flowed down into our water supply from Huntersville and a wastewater treatment plant.

I keep it as a reminder of why experts worry whether our children will have clean water, and plenty of it.

I had hoped to tour Mountain Island Lake with Rusty Rozzelle, who grew up there and now manages water quality for Mecklenburg County. You may have driven along Rozzelles Ferry Road, named for the ferry his family operated in the 1700s and 1800s across the Catawba River.

But Rozzelle rarely gets out on the water anymore. He spends his time in a windowless office trying to protect the lake he loves.

He loved the lake when it was a muddy sliver of water that outsiders avoided. He says the turnaround came after Duke Power dammed Lake Norman in 1963. Pollutants that once funneled downstream into Mountain Island now settle instead into the depths of Lake Norman.

Ironically, as Mountain Island Lake cleaned up, development poured in, and now water quality in the coves is dropping again.

"It is," Rozzelle said, and he emphasized each syllable, "very, very, very painful to see."

Testing the water

Rozzelle suggested I ride with David Buetow and Brian Sikes on one of their rounds collecting water samples. We took off on a weekday morning after the fog lifted. Except for a lone fisherman and a few gulls, the lake was ours.We traveled from the dam that separates Mountain Island Lake from Lake Wylie to the dam that holds back Lake Norman. For long stretches, the shoreline is protected from development and the lake is so narrow it feels like a river. Old homes still hug the edge in certain places, but new homes are set back 100 feet behind trees to help prevent fertilizer, pesticides and soil from running off into our water supply.

Ten times along the way, Buetow cut the engine, Sikes dropped anchor, and they took samples. The water overall looked good, and still does, even with so many pressures on the lake from suburban sprawl. The challenge will be to keep it that way in years to come.

The cleanest spot? The upper end where water flows in from Lake Norman.

The dirtiest? The cove near McDowell Creek, which flows through Huntersville and carries with it sediment from construction sites and other urban runoff.

41 acres a day

I canoed back to McDowell Creek six months later, at the end of September, and a big mud bog stretched not far from where we anchored in March. Three great white herons and a great blue stalked the banks for minnows.

I edged the canoe up the creek, but ventured only a few feet. It was so shallow I suspected most of the water was discharge from the treatment plant. No matter how clean treated water is, I didn't want to get stuck.

I had read about how runoff from all the subdivisions and shopping centers we're building is destroying our creeks and the plants and animals in them, but it's hard to imagine until you see it up close. Not so many years ago, homeowners on Mountain Island Lake rode their motorboats through this creek. It's now so full of silt, I couldn't even get a canoe up it.

We lose, on average, 41 acres of woods and farms to development every day in and around Charlotte, says the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. The more development, the harder it is to keep the river clean. The more people, the more demand for clean water.

This drought makes the problem worse: There's less water to filter out pollutants. Some tributaries like McDowell Creek are so low, little more than treated sewage is flowing down them.

Within 50 years, Duke Energy says, we'll either have to come up with ways to use less water or find another source.

Rozzelle says we should take a lesson from Lake Wylie. It was the first lake Duke built in the chain of 11 lakes along the Catawba and the first to be developed. It is now one of the dirtiest.


River Docs: A Catawba River Narrative

An exhibit documenting our connection to the river. WHEN: Nov. 15--Feb. 22.

WHERE: The Light Factory, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.


704-333-9755, www.lightfactory.org ON CHARLOTTE.COM

• Take a video tour of Mountain Island Lake and other spots along the river.

• Check out our slideshow of Catawba wildlife.




PART 5:  November 1, 2007

WYLIE ON THE BRINK-Polluted parts of this lovely lake present a cautionary tale

By Bruce Henderson

If Lake Wylie were a bathtub, Carol Butler's shoreline would be the scummy ring around it.

Each time high water recedes, her woodsy lot becomes a lakefront landfill. Telephone poles, tires, dock parts -- once even a heisted church safe -- maroon on Butler's shore.

Not that there's been much high water lately.

When Butler and I kayaked in mid-September across Crowders Creek Cove, where she and two housemates share a log cabin, the water was so shallow we could have waded.

The cove was knee-deep partly because of the fierce summer drought that dropped Wylie's surface nearly 7 feet. The other reason is Crowders Creek, which rises west of Gastonia and flows into one of the lake's arms below the state line.

So much silt washes into the cove that it formed a delta several hundred yards long, licking from the mouth of the creek like a great, devouring tongue. Thirty-foot willows grow where water skiers once turned.

The scene -- great blue herons stalking fish trapped in the shallows, our paddles digging into muck, a beer bottle stuck in the cove bottom -- sums up Wylie's fate. More than most Catawba reservoirs, this lake catches the worst that people send her way.

Water's retreat

What makes Wylie different?Although it is less than half the size of Lake Norman, Wylie drains water from a much larger area -- 3,020 square miles of lawns and fields, forests and factories. Much of its water also comes from tributaries, such as the South Fork Catawba. The tributaries don't have reservoirs to settle out pollutants, as Lake Norman does for Mountain Island Lake.

Butler's waterline has retreated 80 feet in the six years she has lived on the lake, watching the cove fill with silt. "My fear," she said, "is that the water's not going to come back and this land is going to close up the channel."

Butler blames Duke Energy, which manages the Catawba lakes under a federal license, for not controlling the sediment. Duke told me it lets lake residents pay for dredging to keep open access to their piers, but doesn't do any dredging itself except at company property.

Impaired waters

Silt and tires are only the stuff Butler sees.

Growing loads of fecal bacteria also churn down Crowders Creek into the lake. In the S.C. portion of the creek, toxic copper -- no one knows where it comes from -- makes it hard for fish to survive.

Environmental agencies in both Carolinas list the creek as "impaired," the official euphemism for polluted.

Lake Wylie is known for its bass fishing, in part, because phosphorus flows into it from sewage plants and lawn fertilizers. The nutrient works its way up the food chain to the shad that bass eat. Too much of it causes stinking algal blooms that, at their worst, can kill fish.

Crowders Creek cove is not typical of Lake Wylie's overall health. It is one of two parts of the lake on South Carolina's impaired-waters list, and some pollutants are dropping. Fish from the lake are safe to eat, S.C. officials say, although North Carolina warns against eating largemouth bass caught anywhere in that state.

Butler remembers better days. At 55, she's a freelance writer and digital photo artist with a passion for feral cats, starving castoffs she nurses back to health.

She wonders whether it's possible to save her cove, too.

As a girl she spent weekends and summers at her grandparents' Wylie cabin, swimming with her collie Solo, fishing off the dock and slalom skiing "like walking on water."

Butler also caught hepatitis at 13 from tainted lake water.

Still, she said, people seemed to have more respect for the lake back then. And she told the story of a certain red rag.

A matter of respect

Marinas where the family docked for a fill-up and hot dogs, she said, kept rags ready near the gas pumps. If a single drop of gas or oil fell into the lake, in went a rag to soak it from the surface.Now containers of used motor oil wash up on her shore.

Butler's household spent five months cleaning up after the last big storm, in February. They bought an all-terrain vehicle to haul barrels of bottles, soccer balls, fishing corks and toys up the hill to their trucks.

Much of her trash, Butler figures, washes down storm drains or falls from uncovered trucks crossing the S.C. 274 bridge that spans Crowders Creek.

Litter laws and other regulations alone, she knows, will never save the Catawba.

"It's like the cats," she said. "It's from ignorance, a lack of civility, a lack of caring.

"I wonder what people's parents taught them?"



PART 6:  November 2, 2007

WHERE THE WATER RUNS WILD-The river flows like history here--every mile ancient, every moment a renewal. But can it last?

By Elizabeth Leland

If you paddle south of Wylie Dam, it's easy to imagine what the ancient Indians saw along the river that shares their name.

On this, the longest free-flowing section of the Catawba, otters slide playfully down the banks and bald eagles soar overhead, our national bird gliding so low over the shoals you can see the yellow of his talons.

Here the river flows much the way it has for millions of years, before man built so many dams and lakes and houses. Wind soughs through the trees, sun dances in tiny sparkles across the water, and cormorants float in the distance like a row of black buoys.

It is so peaceful and natural -- the way you expect a river to be -- you can easily forget you're on the other side of a dam holding back Lake Wylie and some of the most polluted water on the Catawba.

Then around a bend, the reverie is broken. The thunder of Interstate 77 drowns out the whisper of the river.

And so it is down this beautiful stretch of the Catawba. Just when you think you're far from humanity, humanity intrudes:

Trash streaming down from Charlotte by way of Sugar Creek.

Water the color of weak tea bubbling up where a paper company empties its treated waste.

Smelly wastewater from a sewage treatment plant splashing out of a galvanized pipe.

I am amazed by the power of the river to cleanse itself.

About 14 miles down

Like many people, Beckee Garris rarely sees the Catawba except through her car window as she rushes above on the interstate. A break in the line of trees, a glimpse of rocks in the water below, and then it's gone.Unlike many of us, Garris feels a kinship with the river, a connection dating back hundreds of years. She is a Catawba Indian, one of the Ye Iswa, or "people of the river," who consider the Catawba sacred.

I met Garris at the cultural center on the reservation outside Rock Hill, a 15-minute walk from the river. She is a potter and digs for clay with other Indian potters at a secret spot beside the Catawba.

"I don't want to sound poetic," Garris said, "but the river was our blood. As long as the river flowed, we got our food from it, and the clay to make our pottery. It was our means of travel, our drinking water, our bathing water."

We are all people of the river now.

It is still our drinking water, our bathing water, our lifeblood. Yet there's so much trash in it, Garris said she no longer eats fish caught in the Catawba.

If you paddle this section, you'll find plastic bottles, basketballs, just about anything imaginable that could float down from Charlotte -- and some things like bowling balls that you might not imagine would float. I saw a bed quilt tangled in the rocks, a car tire stuck in the mud, a bright yellow tennis ball bobbing through the shoals.

Mostly I found beauty and serenity.

24.5 miles down

The Rocky Shoals spider lilies were blooming in May at Landsford Canal State Park, and family and friends joined me along my last few miles down this stretch of the river.

I had heard about the lilies, but descriptions didn't prepare me. Here on the Catawba, the largest known colony in the world thrives, despite so much pollution from upstream.

How, I wondered, do the flowers survive?

Al James, who manages the park, said the shoals act as a natural filtration system. Sediment, he said, poses a greater threat than pollution. If this stretch of the river is developed, he warned, silt from runoff could choke the lilies.

Storm clouds threatened as we lowered our kayaks into the water. We quickly paddled down the channel, skirting rocks and shallows until we saw an improbable garden in the middle of the Catawba. Delicate white blooms waved like spider legs, and sturdy green stalks seemed to sprout from the rocks.

It would have been easier to stay in deep water, but the lilies beckoned and we kayaked into their midst, surrounded by dainty paper-thin blooms, acre upon acre, as far as we could see.

It was magical, the way I felt when I hiked to the Upper Falls near the river's source 150 miles away in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Here, less than an hour from Charlotte, wilderness again cradled the river.

29.7 miles down

The lilies thinned out and we found ourselves in deep water, an easy 3-mile paddle to the boat ramp beneath S.C. Highway 9. From there, the river flows through Fishing Creek Reservoir toward what once were the Great Falls.Saturday: Bruce Henderson goes to see a town pinning its revival on the Catawba. Day 6 of 8

Understanding the Wild River

Though this part of the Catawba is mostly undeveloped, it is feeling the growth in Charlotte and Rock Hill. It's a fun part of the river to paddle, but access is limited to a few places, including Wylie Dam, Rock Hill's River Park and Landsford Canal State Park near the town of Catawba.


You'll see few houses and factories.


The river is habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife.


See the Rocky Shoals spider lilies bloom in late May and early June at Landsford Canal State Park, www.southcarolinaparks.com. You can rent a canoe or kayak from Catawba River Expedition, 803-327-9335, www.catawba-river-expeditions.com.


• The Katawba Valley Land Trust preserves land with significant natural, historical or archaeology value. www.kvlt.org.

• Nation Ford Land Trust is dedicated to the preservation of open spaces, natural beauty and the scenic heritage of the York County, S.C., area. www.nationfordlandtrust.org

River Docs: A Catawba River Narrative

An exhibit documenting our connection to the river. WHEN: Nov. 15--Feb. 22.

WHERE: The Light Factory, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.


DETAILS: 704-333-9755, www.lightfactory.org COMING TO S.C.: The exhibit will be at the Museum of York County in Rock Hill, beginning in March. 803-329-2121. www.chmuseums.org.



PART 7:  November 3, 2007

Rebirth for Great Falls-Former textile mill town's hope turn once again to the river

By Bruce Henderson


I stood on the dam that a century ago captured the wild Catawba River and put it to work.

The dam created jobs but diverted water from the falls that roared, wrote a 19th-century historian, "like the rumbling of distant thunder."

The old structure had the weathered patina of the boulders piled at its base, looking after all this time like it belongs here. Turkey vultures soared over a tranquil expanse of green water upstream, their droppings whitewashing the concrete. Downstream plunged the riverbed, dry since 1904.

All of which leads to the bitter irony of Great Falls, a mill village an hour south of Charlotte that lost both the textile jobs the dam created and its namesake rapids.

Great Falls wants its mojo back. It's looking -- where else? -- to the river.

Without the Catawba, there would be no Great Falls, no string of hydroelectric plants to electrify turn-of-the-century mills and farmhouses, no migration of mountain folk down to work the mills, no foundation for the Charlotte region's growth.

It's easy to forget all that, even for those of us who grew up on the Catawba. This year's drought, more than anything, reminds me that the river's gifts can be snatched away by nature and abuse.

Nature-based tourism

Great Falls sits on a rise that falls away toward a bend in the river. It's on the fall line, where rocky Piedmont rivers crash into the soft coastal plain. I could imagine vacation houses perched prettily on its slopes.Instead the town felt lonely as I drove down its half-vacant, one-block downtown and past rows of mill houses, boulders lodged in their yards.

The town's rebirth, believers say, lies in once again exploiting the water that wraps around it yet is scarcely visible.

Nature-based tourism, it's called. That means drawing paddlers and hikers and fishermen to explore the Catawba's raw beauty and, not incidentally, pump dollars into cafes and real estate.

"We want people to come and live here and have nature at their doorstep," Glinda Coleman, the community development director, said as she drove me past the burned-out shell of a former JP Stevens mill.

That's been the plan for seven years. Now, things are happening.

Last year Duke Energy, whose predecessors built five small dams in this stretch of river, agreed during negotiations over its federal hydro license to release water again into two river channels that have been dry for a century. On 22 to 28 days a year, paddlers will challenge foaming whitewater unlike any river outside the mountains.

Duke will also lease to South Carolina a cluster of islands, including the towering, forested crag called Dearborn. The state will create a park, linking the island to the town with a pedestrian bridge.

In September, South Carolina bought 1,540 waterfront acres near Great Falls from Duke's development arm, Crescent Resources. That 15 miles of shoreline will be part of the largest undeveloped tract anywhere on the Catawba.

The town itself, with the help of a state grant, plans to build a creekside trail below the dam. Renderings envision recycling a company store built in 1910 as a visitors center.

"Great Falls is the jewel that everybody knows is there," said county supervisor Carlisle Roddey. "They just haven't found it yet."

Quiet, for now

The town's heyday was in the 1930s and 1940s, when the population was twice the current 2,200. Decorative friezes link downtown shops designed in the 1920s by Joseph Emory Sirrine, a prominent architect from Greenville, S.C.

But prosperity has faded since three textile mills closed in the 1980s, erasing 1,500 jobs.

Town Hall occupies a former bank building, vault intact. The dime store downtown closed in January, a year after two discount stores opened on the outskirts. The town built an industrial building but had to wait a decade for a buyer (it's now occupied).

"One friend said, `It's such a pretty place to be such a sad little town,' " said Elizabeth Wilson, who moved away to teach history in Virginia but came back to retire in 1991.

The river draws natives home, Wilson told me. From her brick ranch overlooking the Catawba, she watches ospreys tend their nesting young. The quiet is so complete that she can hear her neighbor's chickens rousing each morning.

It's a silence waiting to be broken, like a great waterfall that will roar again. Day 7 of 8

Understanding Great Falls Lake

Completed in 1907, the dam diverted water from the Great Falls to hydroelectric plants. It was the first project of Southern Power, which merged with Duke Power in 1927. The lake's level was 2.4 feet below full pond Friday. The look

Forested shorelines, quiet water.

Distinctive feature

An off-the-track town set on hills that slope down to the river.

Check this out

Look downstream from the S.C. 200 bridge, north of Great Falls, for a beautiful view of the river. Memorial Day weekends bring the town's annual Flopeye Fish Festival.

What you can do

The Katawba Valley Land Trust, based in Lancaster, S.C., preserves land with significant natural, historical or archaeology value. www.kvlt.org.

River Docs: A Catawba River narrative

An exhibit documenting our connection to the river.

WHEN: Nov. 15--Feb. 22;

WHERE: The Light Factory, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.




PART 8:  November 3, 2007

RIPPLES DOWN River-A swim brings a reminder of how water connects us all

By Elizabeth Leland

The day I explored Lake Wateree, the temperature rose to 102 degrees back in Charlotte, and despite a breeze, it felt nearly that hot on the water's edge.

It hadn't rained in ages, and it wouldn't be long before water restrictions.

So where did Becky McSwain and I go that stifling August morning to talk about the Catawba River? We rode her pontoon boat to the middle of the lake and jumped in.

Before we realized what was happening, we were swept downstream. Duke Energy was generating so much electricity in Charlotte and places to the north that water being discharged from dams upstream was creating a current through Lake Wateree.

It only served to illustrate McSwain's point: What happens upstream affects the river below and people like her who depend on it.

Pollution. Sprawl. Droughts. Floods.

No matter where the problems begin, they end up downriver.

To get to McSwain's house on Lake Wateree, I started 225 miles upriver in a hollow of the Blue Ridge Mountains where the Catawba begins, bubbling up cool and clear from deep within the earth.

It was February when I hiked to the headwaters and, though forecasters had warned we should expect more frequent and prolonged droughts due to climate change, no one knew that months later we would be gripped by this terrible drought.

From the mountains to the Piedmont and into South Carolina, my colleague Bruce Henderson and I heard from people who love the Catawba and worry about its future. Our future. Unless we quit polluting this beautiful river, and wasting its water, and straining the entire basin with development, we could one day run out of clean water.

This drought, as bad as it is, is only part of the problem.

Water rights

Lake Wateree is the last of 11 lakes along the Catawba. It reminded me of Lake James in the mountains because of the many huge new houses going up. You can drive from Charlotte to Lake Wateree in an hour and a half, and quite a few people in the city own second homes on the lake.I found McSwain's house at the end of a dirt road, set back from the water behind pine trees and native shrubs. "I'm in the lake," read a note on her kitchen counter. "Back in a little bit."

In the water, I saw a pair of arms doing the backstroke. As idyllic as the setting was, when we jumped off her boat awhile later, we discussed an issue that will affect all of us who depend on the Catawba for water:

Who should decide the fate of the river?

States across the country are fighting over water. Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been arguing for years over the Chattahoochee River. Now South Carolina has sued North Carolina to stop Concord and Kannapolis from using 10 million gallons a day of Catawba water.

Taking the water is not the issue. It's the fact that the towns won't put it back, as most towns and industries do. Instead, they plan to use the water, then release it into the Rocky River basin, not the Catawba basin.

That's 10 million gallons a day lost forever.

It might not make a difference when water levels are high.

But what will happen in a drought?

What will happen if other cities demand to pipe even more water out of the Catawba?

South Carolina believes giving up any water could be devastating. In the five-year drought that ended in 2002, the river ran so low that tap water in Camden, 93 miles south of Charlotte, was unfit to drink.

"It's a long way to the ocean, and a lot of industries and cities below us depend on the Catawba," McSwain said. "Should a state upstream have sole authority to divert water out of a river without states downstream having any say-so?"

Seeing green

McSwain loves the Catawba. She is 61, and it has been part of her life since 1948, when she was 2. Her father leased a lot on Wateree from Duke Power for $25 a year and built a one-room cabin where her family spent weekends and most of every summer.

She said she cried every Thanksgiving when they boarded up the cabin for the winter. Her father eventually bought the land, and now her daughter uses the cabin as a vacation home. McSwain bought the lot next door, built a small house and nine years ago left her job as a spokeswoman for Duke Power in Charlotte for life on the lake.

"You can still see green," she said as we motored past a lovely stretch of woods. An osprey flew overhead, and a great white heron strutted through the shallows where wild lilies grow. "Let's hope," she said, "when you come back in five years you can still see green."

Like many people I encountered along the Catawba, McSwain wonders whether the river can handle our increasing demands.

She remembers when water quality in Lake Wateree declined a few years ago. Phosphorus in treated sewage flowing 70 miles down from Charlotte was stimulating algae growth. It got so bad, South Carolina persuaded Charlotte-Mecklenburg to spend $28 million to clean up its discharges.

"We used to take clean water for granted," McSwain said. "Now we can't."

Raising awareness

McSwain and I both grew up on the water, but I didn't realize until I began this series on the Catawba River that it was the same water.From out of a mountain spring, the Catawba flows through North Carolina and into South Carolina until it empties into Lake Wateree. From there it becomes the Wateree River, then the Santee River, then it empties into Lake Marion. Some of that water then flows into Lake Moultrie and into the Cooper River and on down to Charleston, where I grew up, before disappearing into the Atlantic Ocean.

The water doesn't stop at the state line, and it doesn't stop when the river changes names. It travels 450 miles from the mountains to the sea and, though it may seem like little more than a playground, it is our lifeblood.

More than 1.3 million of us in North and South Carolina depend on the Catawba for water and electricity. We use it to carry away our treated sewage and fuel many of our factories.

Without it, we wouldn't be here.

The sad thing, McSwain said, is that many of us take the Catawba for granted. Only during a drought, when we can't water our lawns, are we even aware of the threats to the river that sustains us. A cry for the catawba | Last of 8 parts

River Docs: A Catawba River narrative

A new exhibit documents our connection to the river through photography, fabric installation and interactive media. It features work by photographers Byron Baldwin, Raymond Grubb and Nancy Pierce; installation artists Marek Ranis and Maja Godlewska; and digital artist Mike Wirth. Curated by June Lambla.

WHEN: Nov. 15--Feb. 22; Opening reception, Nov. 15, 7--9 p.m., with performances and historical presentations.

WHERE: The Light Factory, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.


704-333-9755, www.lightfactory.orgCOMING TO S.C.: The exhibit will be at the Museum of York County in Rock Hill, beginning March 29. 803-329-2121. www.chmuseums.org. A cry for the catawba | Last of 8 parts

Document Actions
Help Catawba Riverkeeper

Your River needs you as much as you need the River

Donate Here

Help in other ways

Report Pollution in the Catawba River

Help protect your River! 

Tell your Riverkeeper if you see:

  • Sewage Overflows
  • Failure to control sediment from construction sites
  • Illegal clearing of buffer areas
  • Fish kills 
  • Unpermitted discharges
  • Other issues that concern you

Click here to fill out a pollution reportor to report water pollution to Catawba Riverkeeper by phone, call 1-888-679-9494 or 704-679-9494.  In addition, to informing your Riverkeeper, you should also report spills or contamination to federal, state and local environmental officials.

To report South Carolina water pollution call 1-888-481-0125.

To report North Carolina spills or fish kills, call your local regional Department of Environment & Natural Resources office during normal business hours (704-663-1699 for most Catawba basin areas or (828) 296-4500 for Burke, Caldwell, McDowell and other mountain counties) or 800-858-0368 after hours.  (For more information on NC spill reporting, click here)

715 N. Church St., Suite 120 . Charlotte, NC 28202 . Phone: 704.679.9494 . Fax: 704.679.9559