Around Town

Going on patrol with a riverkeeper

In December, Sam Perkins was a panelist for a Charlotte Observer program about the future of water. When the tough questions were asked by Ira Flatow, the host from Science Friday, Perkins held his own with senior representatives from NASA and Duke Energy.

A native Charlottean, Perkins is one of 260 Waterkeepers worldwide. Since receiving a graduate degree in marine sciences with a focus on geochemistry and hydrology from UNC Chapel Hill in 2011, Perkins has worked for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF) as the riverkeeper.

Photo 2 Credit Sam Perkins

In 1995, local government identified the need for an advocacy group, and in 1997 CRF was founded as a 501(c)3 organization. It is funded by more than 700 memberships. Perkins is one of four full-time staff members whose mission is to “educate and advocate to protect the Catawba-Wateree River Basin’s lakes, rivers and streams for everyone who depends on and enjoys them.”

Photo 3 Credit to Sam Perkins

In order to get a firsthand look at a riverkeeper’s duties, I went on patrol with Perkins. That day, he concentrated on new housing developments built on the river and lake front.

Photo 4 Credit to VMI

I followed him up and down steep muddy hills and watched as he photographed and documented places that had been brought up to regulation and others that had fallen out of compliance.

Photo 5 Credit to VMI
Perkins showed me the Allen Steam Station coal ash pond, which is propped up more than 75 feet high on the banks of Lake Wylie.
Photo 6 Credit to VMI

Companies are required to follow protocol for preventing erosion and sedimentation and disposing pollutants. There are strict codes for companies to follow and Perkins makes note of any breach in regulation. In 2012, CRF was the first to make the formal report of illegal coal ash discharge that became part of Duke Energy paying a $102 million fine.

At the end of the patrol, Perkins admitted that on most days now, he is holed up in his office filing paperwork for active litigation. He does not pull punches when he talks about how the importance of big business’ bottom line takes precedence over safety guidelines and environmental codes. Not without anger, he noted, “They are trying to make as much profit as they can.”

For most of us, we turn on the water faucet and expect clean water to come out immediately. For Perkins and CRF, they have taken on the political, social and economic complexity behind that glass of water.

If you are willing to do more than just turn on the tap, there are several ways individuals can get involved and learn more about the state of water in our region:

– Become a certified Water Watcher. Learn what to look for to help protect our water supply through this free program.

– Participate in a spring cleanup. In 2014, 50,000 lbs of trash were removed from the water basin.

– Volunteer for Summer Youth Kayak & Education program. Catawba Riverkeeper partners with the Boys and Girls Club to teach water safety and kayaking to 350 middle school students every summer.

Photos: Sam Perkins, Vanessa Infanzon