Catawba River: Once Wild

Map of the Santee River watershed, including the Catawba River | Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Santee River watershed, including the Catawba River

Spanning two states and more than 200 miles, the Catawba is more a linked series of reservoirs than a genuine river anymore. This once-wild waterway named for the Catawba tribe of Native Americans — “the people of the river” — rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains just east of Asheville, NC, and yields for no fewer than 11 impoundments on its way to and through South Carolina, where it eventually becomes known as the Wateree River before landing in Congaree National Park for its final 10 miles above Lake Marion.

Along the way, it weaves through some of the finest countryside in the Carolinas, alternating between rural and urban landscapes, and passes by densely populated Charlotte, where it forms the 33,000-acre Lake Norman, a mecca of outdoor recreation.

The 30-mile stretch of the Catawba River between the Lake Wylie Hydro Station and the upper end of Fishing Creek Lake is now the longest portion of the Catawba River that remains undammed, forming a significant portion of the Wateree Blue Trail that winds 75 miles south to meet the Congaree River Blue Trail within the national park. The land bordering much of the Catawba-Wateree along the Blue Trail remains a wooded and natural floodplain forest, creating a haven for bald eagles, river otters, belted kingfishers, and wildlife of all sorts.

The basin is one of a precious few areas left in the southeast with significant populations of the rocky Shoals spider lily (Hymenocallis coronaria), with a notably large population left at Landsford Canal State Park. The Catawba River is also rich in history, providing for ancestors of the Catawba Indian Nation for some 12,000 years. European explorers and early American settlers eventually found their way to the valley and continue to flock to the region, all leaving their mark on the river.

The Backstory

Beginning in 1904, a series of hydroelectric dams were constructed to harness the power of the river in an effort to foster growth in the region and meet increasing demands for energy. The hydro station forming Lake Wylie was the cornerstone of what is now Duke Energy, the largest electric power company in the U.S.

More than two million people now live in the Catawba-Wateree basin, and rapid growth is putting a strain on water resources. The lack of an overall plan for efficient water use is one of the reasons why American Rivers named the Catawba River one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®  in 2008. In 2010, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) named the Catawba-Wateree basin one of the top 10 most endangered places in the Southeast for the same reason.

The river’s 11 hydroelectric dams combined with drought, climate change, and rampant development contribute to a variety of issues—including poor flow management, sedimentation runoff, excessive nutrients, and industrial waste—that continue to pose significant risk to the health of the river.

Coal ash, a byproduct of power generation, has historically threatened the river and local water supply with pollution. In 2009 the EPA announced that four of the top 44 “High Hazard Ash Ponds” in the U.S. sit alongside the Catawba, posing a catastrophic threat to drinking water reservoirs in the most populated area of North Carolina. The EPA High Hazard list includes ash ponds on Lake Norman and Lake Wylie, along with two ponds discharging into Mountain Island Lake.

The Future

It has been more than 100 years since the town of Great Falls has lived up to its name. But a landmark agreement forged during relicensing last year will restore continuous flows to areas that have been bypassed since Duke’s Great Falls Hydro and reservoir were built in the early 1900s. The new license will bring about eight miles of whitewater rapids, kayak and raft launches, and fishing areas with hopes of introducing ecotourism to the economically struggling town. Special whitewater releases are planned in the late spring and summer for visitors to enjoy.

Duke Energy’s relicensing process was the biggest hydroelectric dam relicensing in the nation, and the outcome is expected to lead to great improvements to the health of the river by dramatically altering reservoir operations, enhancing water quality and reshaping how people use and value the river for the next half century. It is expected to change the way Duke operates the entire river system.

The comprehensive settlement agreement that led to the FERC relicensing is reflective of modern conservation values and returns water to five sections of the Catawba-Wateree by establishing minimum-flow requirements rather than merely averages, where the river could essentially be turned off and on in order to meet requirements. Some improvements are already being implemented, putting water back in the river channel where it historically has been redirected to generate electricity or cool power stations. That translates to improved recreational access as well as general river health for people, fish and wildlife, including endangered sturgeon fish species that make their home in the Catawba.

  • Catawba River | American Rivers
    Kayaker on the Catawba River
    American Rivers