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December 2013
River Rescue
By Pete Prunkl

Where babies come from and the source of our drinking water are two great mysteries of life. We learn quickly enough the answer to the first question. The second lingers unresolved into adulthood and then is largely forgotten.


Groups concerned about H2O think adults need a water wakeup call, some statistic that puts the faucet in our face. Richard C. “Rick” Gaskins Jr., executive director of the Charlotte-based Catawba Riverkeepers Foundation (CRF), has a good one: If present trends continue and we fail to solve our water problems, Mecklenburg County will run out of water by mid-century.


Water Consumption


To solve that massive problem—and Gaskins is convinced that it is solvable—the water-drinking public first needs to return to its long unresolved water question: Where does our drinking water come from?


For a few of us, it is the well in the backyard. Lisa Corbitt of Mecklenburg County Groundwater and Wastewater Services estimates that 15 percent of the drinking water in Mecklenburg County comes from wells. Thousands dot the landscape, especially in Mint Hill, Davidson and Paw Creek. Statewide well use is a lot higher. Approximately 50 percent of North Carolina’s drinking water comes from wells according to Corbitt.


For the other 85 percent of Mecklenburg County, the major source of drinking water is the Catawba River. That’s the same Catawba River that topped American Rivers’ list of most endangered rivers in America in 2008 and is currently fifth on the list. Pegged as at risk from coal ash pollution are the drinking water, recreational enjoyment, wildlife habitat and the recreational economy. It is a river under tremendous stress.


“It is important for people to understand that Mecklenburg County is unusually dependent on the Catawba River,” says Gaskins. “Most large urban areas of the United States have multiple river sources of water. But if the Catawba River gets contaminated, where are you going to find that much water? Regardless of whether it’s for drinking or industrial use, the economy starts grinding to a halt if you don’t have plentiful clean water.”


Historically, dependence on the Catawba River water supply went into overdrive during the 20th century. That’s when entrepreneurs realized its vast economic potential. Beginning in 1904 with what is now Lake Wylie, power companies began erecting the first of 14 dams along the 320-mile Catawba River. That process continued until 1963 when the dam at Lake Norman was completed. All of the dams were eventually absorbed into Duke Energy.


The dams created 11 lakes along the Catawba, from Lake James in the mountains to Lake Wateree in South Carolina. An interrupted Catawba helped insure recreation, stimulate economic growth, and increase the fortunes of Duke Energy.


While no one owns the Catawba, Duke Energy manages and controls most of it. A 2006 study found that Duke consumed almost half—48 percent—of all the water taken from the Catawba every day and not returned. In some cases, an individual power plant uses 1.5 billion gallons a day. Yes, billion. Although most of that water is returned to the river, a significant portion evaporates.


“I don’t know of any other river in the country where power plants consume that much water,” says Gaskins.


The water Duke removes is used to cool its three coal-fired and two nuclear power plants before it is returned to the Catawba. In the summertime, the water Duke Energy takes in from the bottom of the Catawba is 68 degrees Fahrenheit; the water it returns can average 103 degrees Fahrenheit.


And what about drinking water?


The water removed from the Catawba River by the 67 city and municipal public water utilities in North Carolina and by utilities in South Carolina approaches 32 percent of total consumption. During its peak demand period in 2012, Mecklenburg County, for instance, removed 156 million gallons per day.


Water treatment plants clean and distribute water from the Catawba. After we drain and flush it, waste water treatment plants attempt to decontaminate raw sewage and gray water and, at least in theory, return cleaned water to the Catawba.


Other water consumers are agriculture at 18 percent and industry at a meager two percent. Agriculture in the Catawba basin is not only corn and soy beans, but also sod farms and ornamental nurseries. Instant lawns require a lot of water during their growth and development stages. The reason industry consumption is so low is that only a few industries are permitted to draw water directly from the Catawba. Most Charlotte industries use city water and are part of the county’s 156,000,000 gallon daily gulp.


Threats to Clean Water


There are major downsides to having the Catawba River so power-centric. Ash pits are one. Some refer to them as ash ponds, ash lagoons or ash basins. In North Carolina, these pits are unlined, so they are essentially massive holes in the ground where coal combustion waste is dumped. All of these unlined ash pits in North Carolina have contaminated ground water.


After years of inaction, environmental groups this year found a way forward. They threatened a law suit under the Clean Water Act, not once but three times. And it has worked.


In January 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), representing the Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Western North Carolina Alliance, notified the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) of its intention to file suit against Duke Energy for coal ash pollution at its power plant on Lake Julian, near Asheville.


In March 2013, SELC again notified the state that it intended to file a similar suit against Duke for coal ash pollution closer to home, at the Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake on the Catawba River. The Catawba Riverkeepers were part of that suit. In June, SELC told the state it intended to sue over pollution on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.


Finally NCDENR felt the heat. In August 2013, they filed lawsuits seeking injunctions against all of Duke’s coal fired power plants. Every Duke Energy ash pit in North Carolina was included in the state’s action.


“The lawsuits against Duke regarding ash ponds are currently in the preliminary stages,” says Gaskins. “To the best of my knowledge, Duke has not cleaned up any of the ash ponds it owns and certainly not any of its unlined ash ponds on the Catawba River.”


South Carolina Electric and Gas has reacted differently. It has agreed to clean up its ash pond on the Wateree River as a result of the lawsuit filed by SELC on behalf of Catawba Riverkeeper. “SCE&G is ahead of schedule on the cleanup,” says Gaskins.


Power plants, paper companies and industrial polluters are huge, highly visible targets for environmental groups. Going after them makes headlines. In Riverkeeper lingo, they are point sources of pollution.


But it’s the non-point sources that are North Carolina’s greatest polluters. “That’s you and me,” says Gaskins. “We want paved parking lots, big houses with huge roofs, golf courses and lush lawns. That means runoff fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, toxic chemicals, bacteria and nutrients in our streams and rivers. All have harmful effects on drinking water supplies, recreation, fisheries and wildlife.”


Quantity More Contentious Than Quality


For all its attention in the press, water quality is not the top issue facing our area or the Catawba Riverkeepers. It’s water quantity—how much, not how clean.


Gaskins’ quote about Mecklenburg County running out of water by mid-century is founded on two hypotheses: economic growth in our area and the resulting demand for more water.


“The more parking lots we install, the more oil-contaminated water runs off to creeks and streams, not to the ground underneath the pavement. An inch of rain on a parking lot is producing 26,000 gallons of storm water runoff,” says Gaskins. “That runoff goes into the creeks almost instantaneously as compared to a natural environment where there would be very little runoff and most of the water would soak into the ground, recharging the groundwater table.”


Forests, grass, soil and trees create a steady flow to the river. Parking lots and streets—the consequence of economic growth—create what Gaskins calls “flashy flows.”


“To stop flashy flows, developers could, if we had the political will to demand it, create retention ponds next to the asphalt. Or put tanks underground to hold back the first three inches of a rain shower. It’s doable,” says Gaskins.


Economic growth will also drive demand for more power and thus more water. Gaskins’ solution: water conservation by Duke Energy. But what incentive is there for Duke Energy to conserve? It draws the water from the Catawba River at no cost. Even minimal conservation would not be cost-justified in a harsh economic world.


“If you have to spend a penny to save a gallon of water, it is costing Duke Energy money,” says Gaskins.


One of the most contentious issues facing the area is demand that comes in the form of inter-basin transfers or IBT. In 2002, the prolonged drought and expanded economic wealth led the cities of Concord and Kannapolis to request additional water from the Catawba River and the Yadkin-Pee Dee basin.


The cities wanted to withdraw a maximum of 36 million gallons per day from the Catawba River. All their drinking water came from three lakes where the combined draw was approximately 14 million gallons per day. After years of litigation, a settlement was worked out between the towns and Catawba Riverkeeper.


“We have a template for settling these issues,” says Gaskins. “It’s water conservation.” The cities that want to tap into the Catawba River have to institute water conservation programs. One such measure was that the cities require low flow plumbing fixtures in their building codes.


The result was that neither Concord nor Kannapolis have needed a single gallon of water from the Catawba River.


Riverkeeper Resources


Like non-profits everywhere, Catawba Riverkeepers Foundation has more mission than money. In round numbers, they raise around $300,000 each year with an additional $100,000 of in-kind donations from advocacy groups with a similar mission.


With those funds it hosts a soon-to-be revamped website, a newsletter, and designated Clean Up Days on the river. The group trains Citizen Patrols to identify sediment and erosion violations at construction sites. There is also a Youth Kayaking Program to get young people on the river.


“Once citizens see the problem through aerial photos or by kayak trips or field trips, they get it,” says Gaskins. “If they see pollution, they’ll be convinced.”


Gaskins and his staff are advocates for the Catawba. They speak out for its welfare at public hearings, in court and with public officials.


Chief among their allies are the Southern Environmental Law Center and the North Carolina Conservation Network. Donations from individuals and organizations make up 94 percent of CRF’s cash income. Grants and investment earnings bring in the other six percent.


The foundation came into existence as a result of concern among groups in the region that no entity was focused on the Catawba River. Local governments joined in and with the help of the Foundation for the Carolinas, the Catawba Riverkeepers was formed in 1997. The first Riverkeeper was hired in 1998.


Catawba River Foundation also relies on a cadre of volunteers stationed throughout the region. Some take an active role in serving as the Riverkeeper’s eyes and nose. Known as Lakekeepers, Covekeepers, Water Watchers and Steam Watchers, they are on the lookout for pollution. These volunteers regularly report their observations to the sole Riverkeeper on the payroll, Sam Perkins.


It is Perkins, known for his beagle-like inquisitiveness, who explores, samples and tests the waters and environs along the entire Catawba River basin. His monitoring role extends to any concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In Mecklenburg County, there are no Texas-style cattle feed lots, but there are plenty of dairies.


Perkins also trains and supervises volunteers and educates the public on water issues. Perkins’ background seems ideal for this work. He has bachelor’s degrees in journalism and environmental studies as well as a master’s of science in environmental studies, all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Gaskins comes to his role as the Catawba River’s water warrior after a long history of environmental activism. As a Duke University undergrad studying mechanical engineering, he led a team that built an award-winning energy-efficient automobile. At Harvard Law School, where he graduated cum laude, he chaired the environmental law society and was managing editor on the Harvard Environmental Law Review.


Before coming to Catawba Riverkeepers Foundation, Gaskins was in private practice as an environmental attorney. His resume includes past chair of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law section of the North Carolina Bar Association and past vice chair of the American Bar Association’s Toxic Torts and Environmental Litigation committee. One writer has described him as “a walking encyclopedia on toxic torts and environmental litigation.” He is the organization’s fifth director.


Though faced with the ever contentious issues involved with protecting water quantity, water quality and water security, Gaskins and Perkins are optimistic about the future.


“Everybody gets water,” says Gaskins. “Ultimately, people want clean water to drink and to swim in. They want to eat the fish they catch. With water, it’s us. We are causing the problem.”


On November 18, 2013, Mecklenburg County Superior Court ruled that the Catawba Riverkeepers deserve a seat at the table when the state negotiates with Duke Energy on the ash pond issue. The Riverkeepers are not in favor of a slap on the wrist, a small fine and a sweetheart promise to do better.


Perkins wants results: “We will work to see that Duke energy’s toxic coal ash in cleaned up.”


Like the Lorax in the Dr. Seuss classic, the Catawba Riverkeepers speak for the river.


Photo by Fenix Foto

Pete Prunkl is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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