The concept of the Riverkeeper is based on the ancient democratic understanding that water and waterways belong to all the people. In England, some 200 years ago, fishermen fought for the use of their rivers. In the USA, Hudson River fishermen gathered forces in the 1970’s to combat polluters of their beloved river. In 1972, they formed the first Riverkeeper program. Shortly afterward, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. became their legal counsel and in 1998, President of the National Alliance of River, Sound, and Bay Keepers (now the Waterkeeper® Alliance). Catawba Riverkeeper was the 21st Keeper program in the United States, receiving our license on August 11, 1997. Since then, more than 300 Keepers of rivers, bays, lakes and sounds have become licensed members of the Waterkeeper Alliance around the world.
In 1992, the Centralina Council of Governments (CCOG), a regional planning agency in Charlotte, NC, partnered with counties and businesses to develop the Catawba River Corridor Study. This study brought together the counties of Union, Mecklenburg, Gaston and Lincoln, NC and York, SC, as well as Duke Energy, Jentzen Corporation and approximately 100 citizens from the various counties along the Catawba to identify potential threats and solutions for the Catawba River. The study was a comprehensive overview of the river corridor from Lake Norman to Lake Wylie including extensive analysis on land use, demographics, water quality, plant and animal life, recreational facilities and public utilities. In 1995, the study was complete, and the task forces established to evaluate the Catawba River’s water quality, land use and resource development, and community cooperative planning mechanisms, made eight recommendations which were adopted by the steering committee.
The committee’s FIRST recommendation was to “Establish a River-keeping System on the Catawba River.”
Concurrently, the Lake Wylie and Lake Norman Marine Commissions conducted a joint workshop to evaluate the effectiveness of the Neuse Riverkeeper program in eastern NC. Based on this and other information, the Marine Commissions decided that a Riverkeeper program could greatly benefit the entire Catawba River.
With financial support from both marine commissions, the Lake Wylie Marine Commission formed the Catawba River Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit corporation dedicated to protecting and restoring the Catawba River and applied for application for the Riverkeeper license.
In January 1998, a year earlier than expected, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation Board of Directors hired the first Catawba Riverkeeper – Donna Lisenby. Since then, the focus of this successful Riverkeeper program has been on directly improving water quality through monitoring and conservation advocacy, and on increasing public awareness through education and strong partnerships. The Riverkeeper is the chief scientist and advocate for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and the title has been held by 5 different individuals since 1998.
Catawba Riverkeepers (term)
Donna Lisenby (January 1998- January 2008)
Rick Gaskins (Interim Riverkeeper, February-May 2008)
David Merryman (May 2008 – March 2012)
Rick Gaskins (March 2012 – June 2013)
Sam Perkins (June 2013-November 2018)
Brandon Jones (November 2018 – present)
First Funds & The Rejoice Endowment
The first donation to the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation was a $5 bill in an envelope from a widow living on Lake Wylie in an old railroad caboose which had been converted into a fishing cabin. This generous gift was the first of many that passionate and concerned citizens from all across the basin have made to the Foundation as members and supporters.
On February 16, 1998 Ron and Nancy Bryant, through their business Carolina B &B offered a restricted donation of their 38’ Gulfstar Motor Cruiser boat to CRF. Not only was this the first of many boats donated to CRF, but the sale of the vessel netted $48,600 and along with a $1,400 cash donation created the $50,000 that established The REJOICE Endowment, named after their beloved boat. This endowment has grown over the years and, as intended, its interest has provided a “lifeboat” for the organization on multiple occasions.
Today and Beyond
Currently, Catawba Riverkeeper employs a professional staff of scientists, educators, and passionate environmentalists executing programs across the basin. A committed group of board members, volunteers, and community members assist in executing Catawba Riverkeeper’s education, engagement, and advocacy programs.
Although much has changed since 1997, the original vision of the founders to preserve and protect the waters of the ENTIRE Catawba-Wateree River Basin and to do it with on-the-water educational and advocacy programs lives on. It is with great appreciation that we recognize the founding board of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation:
Ron Bryant, Chair Mark Sleeper, Vice Chair
Candy Wilson, Secretary/Treasurer Bill Roberts
Don Cloninger David Ward
Jim Marrow Tim Mead
In the past two decades, Catawba Riverkeeper has been the primary public interest watchdog dedicated to protecting the Catawba-Wateree River Basin. We are the voice of the citizens on behalf of the Catawba River and we are proud of our heritage of protection and advocacy.