The Endangered River

In 2008, the Catawba River was named by American Rivers as the most endangered river in the United States.  It is important to understand the Catawba is NOT currently the most polluted river in the United States, but rather it was identified as the river that is most threatened by current trends of development and poor water management.   American River specifically identified both water quantity and water quality concerns related to current development practices in the Catawba basin.  When announcing the dubious distinction, Gerrit Jöbsis, Southeast Regional Director of American Rivers, observed that  “This isn’t a message of gloom and doom, but rather an opportunity for all of us to look in the mirror, and make a substantive and sustainable change in our lives.”

According to American Rivers, "While the entire region suffers from water mismanagement, the outdated policies currently threatening the Catawba-Wateree River are especially egregious." Unless immediate changes are implemented, the river that provides drinking water for millions of people, pumps tens of millions of dollars into local economies, and is directly responsible for thousands of jobs could be irreparably damaged; and the communities that depend on it will suffer.  Facing problems like these, it’s no wonder the Catawba-Wateree was been named America’s Most Endangered River.   The population explosion in the Charlotte region has left decision makers in both North and South Carolina flummoxed when it comes to water policy.  Neither state has anything that resembles a sustainable long term water plan. Conservation measures are only implemented after things get bad, not year round. 

Each year at least 10 million people flock to the Catawba-Wateree to enjoy a variety of recreationally based industries including boating, camping, hiking and fishing.  Those millions of tourists leave almost 100 million dollars behind, helping drive local economies throughout the region.  The recreation economy supports thousands of jobs.   Meanwhile, the river helps power both states through 11 hydropower plants, 4 coal plants, and 2 nuclear power facilities. Lower water flows would force the facilities to be taken off line. Several paper plants, textile factories and chemical facilities also depend on the river the water to keep their businesses afloat.  No water for the river means no water for the businesses and eventually no jobs for the people who work there. 

People across America should look at what’s happening on the Catawba-Wateree as a preview of coming attractions, and this movie isn’t a comedy, it’s a horror film,” said Rebecca Wodder, President of American Rivers.  “It’s time for the Southeast, and all of America, to adopt 21st century policies that make our communities more resilient in the face of global climate change.” “It’s time for our leaders, to actually lead,” added Jöbsis. We simply cannot afford to be tackling the preeminent problem of the 21st century with 19th century ideas.”

Burton Creek Runoff

Water Quantity Issues

As of 2005, 170 mgd (millions of gallons per day) were pumped from the Catawba to other river basins. By the year 2058, 458 mgd will go to other basins.  This trend is not sustainable.  In January 2007, regulators in North Carolina authorized taking 10 million gallons a day from the Catawba basin for use in the Yadkin basin.  Some of this "stolen" water will go to a misguided plan to build a new water park in the city of Concord. The South Carolina Attorney General responded by petitioning the US Supreme Court to halt the water transfer and assure equitable allocation of this interstate river.  The Catawba Riverkeeper and many municipalities that depend on the Catawba River for water also filed legal challenges to the proposed water transfer.  “We need a real water policy that relies on common sense thinking,” said David Merryman, the Catawba Riverkeeper.

North Carolina and South Carolina should track the amount of surface water each user withdraws and establish enforceable guidelines regarding maximum withdrawals. The South Carolina Legislature must enact new surface water laws that establish water withdrawal regulations and guarantee that enough clean water remains in rivers and lakes to fully support all uses including fishing, boating and wildlife. The goal should be to maximize community health -- not water withdrawals.

“Thousands of people depend everyday on the Catawba-Wateree to put food on their table, and money in their bank accounts,” added Merryman.  “If we just keep putting a straw into the river instead of actually changing out water habits, what’s going to happen to them when we eventually suck the river dry?”

Water Quality Issues

There are 550+ permitted pollution discharges along the Catawba, meaning that there are 550 places where pollution is allowed to flow into the river.  There are also many unpermitted discharges, where pollution flows unregulated into the river.  

The most common problem on the Catwba is sedimentation.  The picture above shows the impact that sediment can have on the clarity of the river. One of the purposes of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is to reduce this kind of pollution. If you see any kind of pollution into the river help us keep the river clean and report what you see! Contact information is in the box to the right of this web page.  

Sewage overflows are relatively common.  Bacterial contamination occurs in the Catawba when sanitary sewers overflow (usually due to grease-clogged sewer lines) or animal waste is improperly disposed of. Sediment from construction sites, and the erosion of riverbanks are the primary sources of pollution in suburban streams in the Catawba River basin.  In 1999, over 9 million gallons of sewage leaked into the Catawba River in roughly 500 incidents.No Swimming Sign

High levels of nutrients, from stormwater run-off, sewage, and other causes is reducing the available oxygen in the water. Lake Rhodhiss is now considered to be eutrophic - it's lack of oxygen making it the perfect home for algae and reducing the ability of fish like trout to survive.


NEXT: Recreation on the River

Document Actions
Help Catawba Riverkeeper

Your River needs you as much as you need the River

Support Our River

Help in other ways

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.

Clean Air / Clean Water Alliance Logo

NC Conservation Network Logo


EarthShare of North Carolina Logo


4-H Clover leaf logo


River Network Logo


SC 4H Science on the Move logo



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