Description of issues

The Catawba-Wateree River is a beautiful river, but is threatened by the effects of growth, including stormwater, sewage, coal ash ponds, and other side effects of increasing population and population density, as well as more traditional sources of pollution such as industrial sources, timber harvesting and agriculture. In 2008, the Catawba-Wateree River was designated as the "most endangered river" in the United States by American Rivers, a river advocacy group. More recently, the EPA issued a report indicating that four of the top 44 high hazard ash ponds in the United States are located on the Catawba River. In 2010 and 2012, the Southern Environmental Law Center identified the Catawba River as one of the ten most endangered places in the Southeast. Information about current issues related to the Catawba-Wateree River is summarized below.

Energy-Water Collision

The Catawba River is one of the most intensely utilized rivers in the United States for energy production.  This use has a number of different impacts on the River including use of a large amount of water, discharges from coal ash ponds, and other wastewater discharges.   In addition, the flow of the Catawba River is, for the most part, controlled by releases from dams operated by Duke Power, which is the current subject of a relicensing process. 

Powerplants are the largest single user of water on the Catawba River, accounting for approximately 48% of water use in the basin.  These large withdrawals of water, combined with the discharge of warm water, place heavy stresses on the River.  According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Catawba River is the 4th most stressed river in the United States from water use by power plants.  It is projected that by 2048 there might not be enough water in the River to meet all of the water demands.  The following links will provide more information about water use by powerplants, .

Coal-fired powerplants present a threat to the waters of Catawba-Wateree basin tRiverbend Ash Pond by Nancy Piercehrough multiple routes including coal ash, mercury contamination from air emissions that precipitate into the water, and evaporation as a result of use as cooling water.  Burning fossil fuels also threatens the basin by contributing to global warming.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 4 of the top 44 highest hazard coal ash ponds in the United States are located on the Catawba River.  Two of EPA's High Hazard Coal Ash Impoundments are located on Mountain Island Lake upstream from the primary water intakes for approximately 860,000 people in Charlotte, Matthews, Mint Hill, Pineville, Mt. Holly and Gastonia.   

Mercury in the emissions from coal-fired powerplants also impacts the Catawba River.  The North Carolina Dept of Health and Human Services recently estimated that “at least 13,677 children per year” are born in North Carolina with blood mercury levels that place them at risk for lifelong learning disabilities, fine motor and attention deficits, and lowered IQ. Mercury levels in fish have already resulted in statewide fish advisories in North Carolina and South Carolina. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the Carolinas.  In addition, mining for coal has buried or polluted 1,200 miles of pristine headwater streams in the Appalachians.

Nuclear Power -Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie by J Wes Bobbitt There are two nuclear stations (with two units per station) on the banks of the Catawba River - Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie and McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman. Both of these facilities are located on drinking water reservoirs within 20 miles of downtown Charlotte.  These units are the largest water users on the River and if there was a serious accident, they have the potential to have a tremendous impact on both the River and surrounding population.

For additional information about the collision of energy generation and water,click here.

Interbasin Transfer Issues (IBT)

Hill Island Bluff Just Before Dawn (Great Falls) by Nancy PierceA proposed dam project in Van Wyck, SC proposed by the Catawba River Water Supply Project will drowned land, bury streams and inundate wetlands.  The proposed dam would create a 92 acre reservoir with a capacity of over 1 billion gallons. Water pumped from the Catawba River would be used to fill this reservoir, and then it would be sent to water customers in Lancaster and Union Counties in and out of the Catawba River basin.

Yes, that's right - IN and OUT of the Catawba River Basin. If permitted, this project undoubtedly would allow more water to be lost permanently from the Catawba River through an interbasin transfer to the Yadkin-Pee Dee River.

That's why Catawba Riverkeeper and American Rivers submitted jointcomments in opposition to this project and in support of increased water efficiency (see below for more on water efficiency).  U.S. EPA also raised concerns in its comments regarding this project, and the NC-SC Catawba Wateree Bi-State Advisory Commission decided held a special meeting about this proposed dam when Catawba Riverkeeper alerted them to this project.

Read the Joint Public Notice announcing this project. 

Previous IBT Work

Catawba Riverkeeper lead a coalition of municipalities and other groups to oppose a request by Concord-Kannapolis to take million gallons per day out of the Catawba River and discharge it in the Yadkin basin.  This interbasin transfer threatens the water supply of cities in the Catawba basin and water quality in both the Catawba and Yadkin Rivers.  Catawba Riverkeeper and the municipalities have entered into a settlement of the case filed in the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, but a related case filed in the U.S. Supreme Court by the State of South Carolina is still pending.  For more information about the proposed settlement of the administrative litigation, click here.  For more information about a ruling by the Supreme Court allowing parties to intervene in the Supreme Court case, click here.  To read the Supreme Court written decision, click here.

Catawba-Wateree BiState Advisory Commission unanimously supports proposed Supreme Court Settlement Agreement language stating:

1. Both states agree to abide by the Comprehensive Relicensing Agreement (CRA) developed through FERC Relicensing process.

2. Both states agree to implement drought management strategies and response plans for all entities using water from the Catawba-Wateree that protect quantities during low flow periods.

3. Both states agree to make future IBT decisions with 2050 CRF modeled projections in mind; NC- 85 MGD and SC 23 MGD (million gallons per day) [Important note, reiterated multiple times by SC Atty General's Office Representative Bob Cook: This is not a cap on IBTs. These are guidelines for the state's to follow during permitting decisions.]

4. Both states will update Water Supply Study every 10 years.

5. Both states will implement "rigorous scrutiny" [Bob Cook quoted] for future additional IBTs and will not relax any current IBT laws and regulations.

The proposed language, if adopted and signed, would bring an end to the Supreme Court case between SC and NC over the equitable apportionment of the Catawba-Wateree River.Complete language for the proposed settlement of Supreme Court Case found in the Library of IBT Documents.

Garden Parkway

Garden Parkway Suggested AlternativeThe North Carolina Turnpike Authority is planning to build a new highway that will go from I-485 near the Charlotte Airport, across Lake Wylie and the South Fork of the Catawba River, into southern Gaston County. This project will have a major impact on the Catawba River in the form of construction run-off, ongoing stormwater and the increased development.

Duke Catawba Hydro Project Relicensing

Lake Wylie Dam after 1916 FloodThe Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in the process of determining whether and under what conditions to issue a new license to operate the dams on the Catawba River. It is likely that the duration of the license will be for 50 years so it is essential that the license include provisions adequate to address the threats to the Catawba River over the next fifty years. The Catawba Riverkeeper is actively involved in commenting on the proposed license.

Hydraulic Fracking

How fracking works

At the current, there is minimal interest in doing hydraulic fracking in the Catawba basin because the areas most likely to contain significant amounts of natural gas are outside the Catawba basin.  However, this is a major issues in other parts of the Carolinas, and hydraulic fracking has the potential to contaminate our groundwater and surface water.  As energy consumers, we should all be concerned about the environmental consequences of the energy we use. 

Pharmaceuticals and Endocrine DisruptorsAtrazine

In the past few decades, many scientists and public health officials have raised the alarm about a new kind of pollution that affects the endocrine system of humans and wildlife. As we learn more about the role of the endocrine system in regulating almost every major process in our bodies, subtle changes to the system caused by low-level environmental contamination are appearing increasingly significant to our health.  The pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors in our water are coming from many different sources including:

  • unwanted medications that are flushed down the drain;
  • vetinary medications that get into the water supply through animal waste; and
  • Pharmaceuticals in human waste, which are not removed by traditional wastewater treament methods.

More study is needed about the level of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) in the Catawba-Wateree River, but there are good reasons to believe that there are significant levels of EDCs in the Catawba, which could be causing health problems for human and aquatic species.  Catawba Riverkeeper is working with federal,state and local law enforcement officials to organize and conduct collection days to collect unneeded medications and dispose of the medications properly (Operation Medicine Drop).  Check our calendar for upcoming Operation Medicine Drop events.

Land Planning and Smart Growth

Many of our water quality problems are the result of poor development practices which is made possible by outdated zoning regulations and building codes.  The solution to many water quality problems is better planning and smarter growth.  This section discusses how to protect water quality while continuing to grow and to have a healthy economy.

Sewage Issues and Sewage Treatment 

Red algae bloom on Lake Wylie

Raw sewage doesn't just stink, it has many detrimental effects on water quality and health. Human health is affected by the bacteria that enter the water and reproduce there. The increase in nutrients can cause algal blooms which decrease the oxygen in the river. Many fish and other creatures cannot survive in these conditions.  The Catawba-Wateree River basin has some of the highest density of septic tanks of any basin in the Carolinas and many of these septic tanks do not function properly, resulting in the discharge of untreated waste in our water.  Moreover, many new developments in areas not served by municipal treatment plants install package treatment plants which are supposed to work automatically, but often fail to work properly resulting in the discharge of untreated waste into our rivers and streams.  Large municipal wastewater treament plants work well when kept up to date and operated properly, but in some cases municipal treatment plants in the basin are using outdated technologies or are not being operated properly.  All of these sources of waste contribute to the nutrient and fecal coliform problems in the basin.

Sedimentation and Muddy Water Watch

Burton Creek Runoff

Loose sediment on new developments will easily run off into the waterways. During big rains, massive amounts of sediment will wash into the river. This sediment can directly suffocate fish and bury their habitats. The sediment can also block light from reaching aquatic plants. Muddy Water Watch training is a statewide effort to reduce the amount of runoff from construction sites.

Pollution from Stormwater

Stormwater Issues

Stormwater is probably the number one source of pollution of the Catawba River.  Stormwater runoff includes runoff from industrial sites (which may carry hazardous pollutants), runoff from parking lots and roads (which typically carries oil, grease and other pollutants), lawns, agricultural properties and golf courses (which often has nutrients from fertilizers, pesticides and urbicides), logging activities (which often has large amounts of sediment) and construction projects (discussed above under "Sedimentation"),   Both the quantity and quality of stormwater runoff is a problem. 

Upper Catawba Basin Issues

Wilson Creek by Kevin KnightThe upper Catawba basin is spectacular and contains many seemingly pristine waters.  However, there are serious threats to the beauty of the upper basin, many of which are unique to the upper basin.  Lake Rhodhiss and many of its tributaries are listed as impaired waters by the United States EPA and the State of North Carolina because of excessive nutrients.  Some nearly pristine headwaters are impaired because of low pH (acidity).  Some troutwaters are threatened by poor development practices including a state policy that allows trout streams to be buried in pipes as part of the construction of a golf course fairway.  Some issues, such as sedimentation are more acute and more difficult to control on the steep slopes of the upper basin.

Water Use & Efficiency Issues

How We Use Water in the Catawba BasinWater efficiency and good water management are the best source of affordable water and must be the backbone of water supply planning.  Unfortunately, millions of gallons of water are wasted every day in the basin.  The Catawba Riverkeeper is working with state and local governments, as well as businesses and private citizens to improve water efficiency and the mangement of our precious water resources.   The proposed new Catawba River Water Supply Project (CRWSP) reservoir near Van Wyck, SC and related plans to increase the amount of water transferred out of the basin from CRWSP to Union County are an example of a increased demand for water is related to poor water conservation practices. 

Additional Information

Additional information about various issues relating to the Catawba River and Wateree River is available in our newsletters, which are available online byclicking here.  You can also get our electronic newletter by becoming a member and providing us with your email address.


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Jan 25, 2017 NC Riverkeeper Report
From the perspectives of 12 NC Riverkeepers, this report discusses how multiple environmental issues pose challenges in the pursuit of clean, plentiful water. Whether you are in North Carolina or downstream in South Carolina, read this report about the state of environmental enforcement.
Dec 13, 2016 Community Foundation of Gaston County grants $5,000 to CRF for Riverkeeper Program
The Community Foundation will fund Catawba Riverkeeper's work in Gaston County.
Dec 12, 2016 A Successful Launch of our Water Education Program at Great Falls Elementary
Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in partnership with 4-H Clemson Cooperative Extension successfully completed our pilot Education Outreach Program with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students from Great Falls Elementary.
Sep 27, 2016 Lake Wateree Fall Cleanup a Sweeping Success
86 volunteers collected 5,490 pounds of trash from Lake Wateree
Jun 13, 2016 Dozens of Youth Reached in Water Education Outreach Program Pilot Lessons
More news…
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 report or 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)


The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is a proud member of EarthShare North Carolina, the North Carolina Conservation Network, River Network and the Waterkeeper Alliance.  It also in in an alliance with Clean Air Carolina to address issues, such as sprawl, that cause air and water problems.

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