Upper Catawba Basin Program

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The Catawba River, with tributaries including the Johns River, the Linville River and Wilson Creek, was named “America’s Most Endangered River” in 2008 by the conservation group American Rivers. The upper Catawba River basin (the portion of the basin above Lake Norman) faces many challenges including steep slope development, logging activities, plant nurseries, the highest density of septic tank systems in North Carolina, and agricultural run-off. The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation recently hired an advocate to assist the Catawba Riverkeeper in focusing on the issues in the upper Catawba basin, including the headwaters of the Catawba River.



Wilson Creek in the Winter

The Catawba River basin is the most densely populated and fastest growing river basin in North Carolina.  Its lakes, rivers and streams are under enormous pressure from growth and development, inadequate environmental regulations and poor enforcement.  The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF) is dedicated to addressing these issues.  

The Catawba River Basin

The 300-mile Catawba River basin begins on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, flows through the North Carolina Piedmont and Charlotte metropolitan area, and into Lake Wateree in South Carolina.  The Catawba-Wateree River basin includes approximately 5,000 miles of waterways and provides drinking water and recreation to roughly two million people in 24 counties, 22 municipalities and two states.

The main stem of the Catawba River is regulated by a series of eleven hydropower reservoirs.  The largest reservoirs are Lake James, Lake Rhodhiss, Lake Hickory, Lookout Shoals Lake, Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake, Lake Wylie, and Lake Wateree.  The chain-like configuration of these lakes presents special challenges to water quality management.  Dams significantly slow the flow of water, increasing nutrient availability and giving algae more time to grow.

The Upper Catawba Basin

The upper Catawba basin includes the portions of the Catawba River and its tributaries above Lookout Shoals Dam near Statesville, N.C., including the first four lakes listed above (James, Rhodhiss, Hickory and Lookout Shoals).  It extends to the source of the Catawba River near Old Fort, to the headwaters of the Linville River and Wilson Creek on Grandfather Mountain, to those of the Johns River near Blowing Rock, and includes the cities of Hickory, Lenoir, Linville, Marion and Morganton.

Upper Catawba Waterfall

Millions of visitors each year seek out the natural splendor of the upper Catawba River basin, including Grandfather Mountain State Park, Blowing Rock, and sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest.  The Linville River, one of only four state-designated Natural and Scenic Rivers in North Carolina, flows over spectacular Linville Falls and through the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.  Wilson Creek is one of only four National Wild and Scenic Rivers in North Carolina and a favorite destination for hikers, anglers and whitewater enthusiasts.

Tourism and development are critical to the upper Catawba basin economy, yet they place extraordinary pressure on water resources.  The upper Catawba basin faces many of the same environmental challenges as the lower Catawba basin, including sedimentation and stormwater runoff from residential and commercial development.  Other impacts to the upper Catawba basin may be more acute than in the lower basin, including mining, logging, and ornamental shrub and tree nurseries.  Appropriate responses may differ in the upper Catawba basin due to its distinctive geology and topography, population density and economic factors.  Environmental regulations in the upper Catawba basin can vary significantly from those of the lower basin. 

CRF’s  Upper Catawba Program  works with local residents to identify and prioritize critical water issues facing the upper basin, including:

    • Strengthening sedimentation and stormwater regulations and enforcement;
    • Advocating for reclassification of certain streams, rivers and lakes to improve buffer regulations and to protect the best uses of these waters;
    • Reducing pollutants such as acid rain and mercury from coal-fired power plants;
    • Advocating during relicensing of Catawba River dams for preservation of natural areas, restoration of migratory fish species, and appropriate water level management;
    • Improving water quality regulations and enforcement applicable to logging and agricultural activities;
    • Reducing pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, especially from large nurseries;
    • Minimizing the detrimental effects of inter-basin water transfers;
    • Opposing mining activities that adversely affect water quality;
    • Addressing sewage issues, including septic tanks, package treatment plants and municipal sewage treatment plants;
    • Addressing water quantity issues, including drought planning and legislation;
    • Protecting marine habitat damage from low lake levels during drought;
    • Minimizing siltation of upper Catawba basin waters from runoff from unpaved roads, increased impervious surfaces, slope development, and logging;
    • Reducing negative impacts from commercial activity in flood plains;
    • Reducing wave-based erosion of unstabilized waterfront around lake shores;
    • Reducing industrial point sources of pollutants;
    • Implementing regular water sampling programs at strategic locations.


More Information:

  • For more information about the Upper Catawba Basin program or to help support the Upper Catawba Basin program, please contact Sam Perkins (sam@catawbariverkeeper.org).
  • For more information about the Lakes in the upper Catawba River basin, click here.
  • For more information about the headwaters in the upper Catawba River basin, click here.



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