Water for growth? River group raises the alarm

Catawba River in York County, aerial view. Photo: Nancy Pierce

“I don't think that the business leaders of today are thinking about water.” — Charlotte developer Smoky Bissell

Most of us turn on the faucet at home or at work, expect water to come out and, when it does, think nothing of it. Maybe we sometimes think fleetingly of the quality of the tap water for drinking. But in the Charlotte region few people worry that the supply of water may run out.

But even in this traditionally water-rich part of the Piedmont Carolinas, officials who monitor water supplies are waving caution flags. A 2006 water supply study projected that with the Charlotte region’s continuing growth, absent significant conservation changes, the Catawba-Wateree River system that supplies water for nearly 2 million people would run out of its ability to provide more water by 2050. Although a later study in 2014 projected 2065 will be the year the water supply will hit capacity, the message that within a few decades this growing metro area may not have enough water isn’t getting through to many in the region.

“I don’t think that the business leaders of today are thinking about water,” said Charlotte developer Smoky Bissell, former chairman and CEO of the Bissell Companies, during a conference last week organized by the nonprofit Catawba Wateree Water Management Group.

The group organized its conference in part to highlight that reality, as well as to discuss work it’s doing – voluntarily, not mandated – despite the lack of public awareness.

One challenge is this: Unlike other states, where water has been scarce for centuries, state laws in the Carolinas don’t address who has rights to the water. That could put the water supply at risk. Other challenges:

  • Increasing demand. Driven largely by growth, demand for this limited supply of water is expected to increase 120 percent by 2065 to 419 million gallons per day. The current demand is 189 million gallons per day. That makes the Catawba-Wateree system the fourth most stressed river system in the U.S.
  • Reduced water quality and quantity. Sedimentation – arriving via soil erosion at construction sites as well as storm water runoff from the area’s growing amount of pavement – does more than cause water quality problems. As it fills in the region’s lakes that serve as water reservoirs, it diminishes their storage capacity.
  • Increasing temperature and evaporation. Rising temperatures from climate change are projected to increase the evaporation rate of the reservoirs by 11 percent between now and 2065. That will further strain the water supply.
Sedimentation does more than pollute the water, like this construction runoff shown flowing into Little Sugar Creek near uptown Charlotte in 2013. As it fills in the lakes it diminishes their water storage capacity, further threatening the region's water supply. Photo: Nancy Pierce 

The Catawba-Wateree watershed area covers more than 4,750 square miles and extends from Morganton in the foothills of the N.C. mountains to Camden, S.C., just north of which the river changes its name from Catawba to Wateree. For an idea of how much water is used by Duke Energy and the 18 public utilities in the watershed, imagine the football field at the Panthers stadium in Charlotte as a giant pool. The 189 million gallons of water used daily would create a football-field-sized pool 440 feet deep.

With the region’s rapid population growth, the water-rich era when residents, businesses and municipalities just assumed plentiful water is facing its end. Conference speaker John Hofmann, executive vice president of water at the Lower Colorado River Authority in fast-growing Austin, Texas, where water is not plentiful, described the challenge: “The people who are coming aren’t bringing water with them.” The same is true in the Charlotte region.

Hoffman described the difficulties of adjudicating water rights, a tangle of contentious and competing interests among politicians, governments, residents, businesses and agriculture. The Catawba watershed, he said, hasn’t reached the explosive point where the legal restrictions must take over  – yet. “You just haven’t grown to the point yet where it’s blown up,” he cautioned. “But it’s going to.”

Municipalities need bodies of water like lakes, rivers and creeks that are big enough to dilute waste water from treatment plants. Shown above: Water in McDowell Creek in north Mecklenburg, just below the McDowell Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Lacking state laws about who gets water, the Catawba-Wateree basin does have an organization of public water utilities and Duke Energy which can be a unified voice and voting entity about its water supply future. Along the river are 11 reservoirs – including Lake James, Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie – all created and managed by Duke for use in power generation. The company held a 50-year federal license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, granted in 1958.

The 2002 drought in the region caused Duke to think about its business model and the reservoirs that serve as hydroelectric and water supply sources. Duke’s concerns prompted a proposal to start charging public utilities for water they take from the basin – a way for Duke to manage and protect its power supply business investment.

Municipalities and others pushed back. That took place as Duke was renegotiating its FERC license, which forced the differing parties to the negotiating table. Meantime, that 2006 study Duke did as part of its FERC relicensing application projected the region would run out of new water capacity in 2050. Eventually the renewed FERC license required Duke to form a consortium with the public utilities that depend on the Catawba-Wateree basin. That was the impetus for the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group.

The consortium voluntarily formed with a mission to develop a water supply management plan. The group’s 2014 water plan includes a regional approach for managing water use. It’s based on better real-time data about how much water is taken and used and includes enhanced modeling and scientific water quality and quantity approaches, which reflect input from the public utilities and Duke.

Last week’s conference, the “Water for All Summit,” was one way the group hopes to spread its messages throughout the region, including:

  • Reliable, long-term water supply is critical to economic success.
  • Water supply is a shared resource and needs collaborative planning and management.
  • For regional success, water resources must be planned regionally with community participation.