Water Quality Facts


The Catawba-Wateree River is under increasing stress from the growing population in the basin, outdated development practices, and inadequate regulatory protection for the River. In 2008, American Rivers, a river advocacy group, named the Catawba River as the most endangered river in the United States. In 2009, the U.S. EPA announced that four of the 44 highest hazard coal ash ponds in the United States are located on the Catawba River and all of these high hazard ash ponds are located on reservoirs used as a source of drinking water. In 2013, the Catawba River was named the 5th most endangered river in the United States.

Water Quality Facts

Catawba River Pollution

A significant portion of the surface water in the Catawba-Wateree basin does not meet basic water quality standards.  In South Carolina, monitoring conducted in 2008 revealed that 84% of monitoring sites in the watershed are impaired (on 303(d) or in a TMDL), and there are a total of 164 impairments due to 11 different causes.  In North Carolina, it is estimated that at least 1/3 of the surface water in the basin is impaired. 

The biggest water quality problems in the basin are:

        • Too many nutrients
        • Too little dissolved oxygen
        • Too acidic- Wilson Creek, South Fork River, and Lake Wylie
        • Fecal Coliform (improper sewage treatment, animal waste, sewage spills, line leakage, and boat discharges)
        • Sedimentation
        • Mercury

There are a variety of causes of these problems, but the primary causes of these problems are bad development practices and the side effects of population growth.  Agricultural and timbering practices are also significant problems inBowater Discharge the upper and lower parts of the basin.  Traditional industrial "point sources" of pollution are less of a problem today than in the past due to strong regulation, improved industry practices and the decline of manufacturing in the basin.  Atmospheric deposition of pollutants, primarily from motor vehicles and powerplants, is a growing problem that has lead to statewide fish advisories for mercury and the acidification of otherwise pristine streams in the headwaters of the Catawba River.

Sediment Near Stormwater InletPoor construction practices allow sediment to destroy important habitats and carry other pollutants into the water.  Stormwater from the growing number of roofs, parking lots, roads and other impervious areas causes further erosion and sedimentation, as well as carrying additional pollutants into the water.  Sewage from the new development poses problems in the form of leaking septic tanks, poorly regulated "package treatment plants" (small unmanned sewage treatment plants that are typically designed to serve one development or business), leaking sewage lines, and poorly operated sewage treatment plants. 

From 1976 to 1985, land in the region was developed at a rate of 30 acres per day.  By 2006, 140 acres of vegetated land per day was being cleared Baxter Village Master Planand developed.  The pace of development is expected to increase to 180 acres per day by 2010.7   Developed land causes runoff into streams, and this runoff contains much higher levels of heavy metals, petroleum products and nutrients than an undeveloped area.A one-acre parking lot produces 25,806 gallons of stormwater for every inch of rain compared with 1,630 gallons from a one-acre meadow.6  The typical one-acre parking lot sends about 15 pounds of nitrogen and two pounds of phosphorus into the nearest waterway each year, compared with two pounds of nitrogen and one-half pound of phosphorus from a one-acre meadow.7

Increased population also results in an increased amount of sewage.  There is no simple solution about to disposing of all of the sewage from the new development.  In 1999, over 9 million gallons of sewage in more that 500 incidents, was leaked or spilled in the Catawba River basin.In 2000, for the first time in the history of the Catawba River lakes, six areas were closed for swimming on Lake Norman, Lake Wylie and Lake Davidson. The closures were caused by mechanical failures of sewage collection systems and intentional discharge of raw sewage.2   According to a 1998 report, due to fecal coliform contamination and other pollutants, 84 % of streams in Mecklenburg County are not considered safe for children to swim in.3   Approximately 20% of Charlotte storm drains have raw sewage leaking into them with fecal coliform levels over 100 times the state standard.4

The increased number of people in the Fuel Spill at Belmont Water Intakeregion also means that there are increased numbers of boats on the water.  In recent years, the Charlotte utility department detected MTBE, a potentially carcinogenic gasoline additive in Charlotte’s water supply.  Officials believe gasoline from more powerboats and marinas on the Catawba River lakes is the cause.5

The demand for electricity in the region is also increasing due to population growth.  The Catawba River hosts two nuclear power plants, three coal-fired powerplants and a large number of hydro-electric powerplants.  Evaporative losses from cooling the nuclear and coal-fired powerplants makes up almost 50% of the net water use in the basin.  Riverbend Ash Pond by Nancy PierceAccording to the U.S. EPA, four of the 44 highest hazard coal ash ponds in the United States are located on the Catawba River.  These unlined coal ash ponds allow pollutants to seap into the groundwater and untreated water from the ponds is discharged directly to three different lakes that are used as a source of drinking water. Most significantly, a failure of the dams would contaminate drinking water.  For example, two of the high hazard ash ponds adjoin and discharge into Mountain Island Lake, which is the primary source of drinking water for over 750,000 people.

Finally, the growth in the region is destroying natural areas and natural systems that in the past have helped minimize the impact of pollution.  Maintaining and restoring buffer areas adjoining rivers, lakes and streams is essential to maintaining and improving water quality.  Construction of rain gardens to detain stormwater can also help reduce the impact of impervious areas. 

Additional Information



1 “Up to our ears in sewage spills.” Bruce Henderson. The Charlotte Observer, September 3, 2000.

NC Division of Water Quality, Mecklenburg County Department of Environmental Protection, Lincoln County Health Department and Mecklenburg County Health Department records. May through August, 2000.

3 Surface Water Improvement and Management Report. Mecklenburg County Department of Environmental Protection, 1998.

4 “Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Loads for the Sugar Creek, Little Sugar Creek and McAlpine Creek Watersheds.” Mecklenburg County Department of Environmental Protection, March, 2001


5 “Up to our ears in sewage spills.” Bruce Henderson. The Charlotte Observer, September 3, 2000. And The Lake Wylie Magazine, summer 2000.

6 “The Importance of Imperviousness.” Tom Schueler, The Center for Watershed Protection. Presented at the 8th Annual Southeastern Lakes Management Conference. March 24-27, 1999 Clemson University, Clemson, SC.

7 http://www.gis.uncc.edu/OSPC/summary/See also The Catawba Under Seige Series. Stuart Watson, NBC Six News. September 2000.

8 “The Importance of Imperviousness.” Tom Schueler, The Center for Watershed Protection. Presented at the 8th Annual Southeastern Lakes Management Conference. March 24-27, 1999 Clemson University, Clemson, SC.


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Report Pollution in the Catawba River

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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