Catawba River lands scenic designation in S.C.

This time, the Catawba River got the kind of recognition that makes its admirers proud.

Two months after gaining fame, or infamy, by earning the title of America's most endangered river, the Catawba has been designated as a state scenic river.

S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford signed legislation June 11 that carries no restrictions for landowners but aims to protect the Catawba's natural and scenic qualities through a cooperative, voluntary program in the river corridor.

The title does allow a group of conservationists, landowners and public officials to convene as an advisory group on river-related concerns.

The group – dubbed the Scenic River Advisory Council – can tap the Department of Natural Resources for help on educating the public and pushing for environmentally sound decisions.

“There's a lot of notoriety for the Catawba these days from a lot of different perspectives,” said Barry Beasley, director of state habitat protection programs.

“(But) there's still an incredible beauty in that river. You still find nesting eagles, waterfowl, the Rocky Shoals spider lily. Even with the pressures, the river still offers an incredible array of natural values.”

The designation applies to a 30-mile segment from the Lake Wylie Dam to the S.C. 9 bridge between Chester and Lancaster counties.

It marks the latest milestone in what has been a high-profile year for the river.

In April, American Rivers, a Washington advocacy group, listed the Catawba at the top of its 2008 endangered list.

The group blasted decision-makers in the Carolinas for “sucking their rivers dry” by letting development continue as a drought afflicts the Catawba basin. It also leveled criticism at the failure to enact long-term water usage plans.

American Rivers said the list seeks to spotlight rivers “at a crossroads” in public policy, not necessarily those with the most flagrant problems.

Now, river enthusiasts hope the scenic designation will return the focus to the Catawba's natural appeal rather than its newfound role as a political hot potato.

“There will be negotiations, I'm sure, involving those kinds of issues you've been seeing,” said Lindsay Pettus, president of the Katawba Valley Land Trust.

“What we'll be looking at is it being such a great natural resource, in terms of wildlife and the visual beauty of the river.”