University City

New Catawba Riverkeeper stays busy

It’s been a hectic 13 months for Sam Perkins since becoming the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation’s director of technical programs, dealing with environmental issues along the 5,000-square-mile Catawba River chain.

Now that the 27-year-old Perkins has been promoted to Catawba Riverkeeper – the public face of the Charlotte-based environmental advocacy group – he knows his life just got a lot busier.

“It’s what I expected, but with a lot more intensity,” Perkins said. “If I let myself, 80-hour weeks are very, very easy to have. This is a big basin, and there’s a lot of area to cover with only three full-time people on staff. We’re doing the advocacy, we’re doing the sampling and we’re doing the event-planning.

“There is a ton that has to get done. It’s something I knew coming into the job, but it is a shock when you realize how much effort it takes to cover the needs of the entire basin every single day. But there’s no second-guessing at all. It’s the sort of work you love to do, sometimes to a fault.”

Perkins was promoted to the Catawba Riverkeeper position on July 17 and is just the fourth person to hold the post since the foundation was created 15 years ago. He replaces Rick Gaskins, who will remain as the foundation’s executive director.

“There wasn’t an exact timetable for this,” said Gaskins, who held the executive director and Catawba Riverkeeper posts since March 2012 after then-Riverkeeper David Merryman left to take a research position in Maryland.

“Part of it was that, in the past, we had a bad habit of overwhelming people to start with. This time, we wanted to try and slowly increase the duties, not just bury someone with all these issues, which can be bewildering.”

But when Perkins was hired in June 2012, his resume appeared to be tailor-made for the new face of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.

A Charlotte native and 2004 Myers Park High School graduate, Perkins earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill in journalism and environmental science in 2008 and a master’s degree in marine science in 2011.

Perkins’ family also has a background in science – his mother, Chris, is an anthropologist, while his father, Randy, is an attorney specializing in environmental causes.

“He’s done a great job,” Gaskins said. “If you’re thinking about the background for a position like this, a background in both journalism and science is the dream background. Having done work on other rivers in North Carolina, he’s very familiar with the issues we face in the Piedmont region. But he’s from the region – his family has been in the area for decades – and he understands the issues. That gives him credibility.”

Some of the issues Perkins has dealt with during the past year are the foundation’s federal lawsuit against Duke Energy concerning the coal-ash lagoons at the now-shuttered Riverbend power plant on the shores of Mountain Island Lake; and an appeal concerning the renewal of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities’ 10-year permit allowing the spreading of sewage sludge in South Carolina.

Perkins has also been engaged in a research project concerning the effects of pollution in Lake Norman and other parts of the Catawba-Wateree River basin – not the environmental effects, but the economic impact it can cause.

“On Lake Norman, the waterfront property ... there’s a disproportionate amount of property tax base relative to the acreage,” said Perkins, who added that the lakefront property is valuable because that’s where people want to live.

That would not be the case if the waters of Lake Norman – or any of the lakes along the Catawba River – were polluted, Perkins said.

“Depending on the county, within a few percent of the (lakefront) acres, you’ve got up to a quarter of the property tax value,” he said. “It’s something we really want to drive home and make it resonate with people – ‘forget about the tree green, think about the money green.’

“There are some really good cases to be made for environmental protection being economically beneficial for the counties. ... When you cause contamination and pollution, you end up having taxpayers foot the bills – it could be in medical bills, water treatment bills, or taxes to directly clean up the site. Ultimately, someone’s going to pay for it at some point.”