In the free-range summers of our childhood, my sister and I sometimes hiked down the hill from our home near Morganton, across our neighbor’s bottomland to the banks of the Catawba River.
I remember humid shade under sycamores, murmuring brown water and the stink of drying mud from those days in the 1960s. Horseflies and basking turtles. We stalked darters in the shallows and leapt across the river on rocks warm from the sun.
Until late in the afternoon, when the wheels came on.
That’s what we called the silent, abrupt rise of water as Duke Power made electricity a few miles upstream. Cold water from the bottom of Lake James spun the turbines under an old brick powerhouse and surged out as a river again, briefly clear and green as a Coke bottle.
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The Catawba is, above all, an engineered river – the hardest-working in America, Duke used to say.
For more than a century, the company now called Duke Energy has controlled the Catawba to generate electricity. In return we get energy that in North Carolina is 10 percent cheaper than the national average, lots of boating and fishing, miles of lakefront real estate and, not least, plenty of water.
Soon that grip will be extended. Duke manages the Catawba under a federal license that is due for renewal. The new license is likely to allow corporate control of a public asset for another 50 years, but will make Duke do more to protect the environment and provide public recreation.
The license coincides with a heightened sense of the river’s limits.
Withdrawals of Catawba water are expected to more than double over the next half-century as the region’s population grows. Greater demands will be placed on us to conserve in coming decades as Duke’s power plants inhale water.
We face a growing urgency that the Catawba can no longer be taken for granted, and that drought and population growth could change everything.
Engineering a river
More than a century ago, guided by young engineers who were intrigued by electricity’s potential, the company that would become the largest U.S. electric utility undertook to dam the Catawba at strategic points. It would become the first American river systematically harnessed to generate electricity.
Hydroelectric power, which was first produced on the Catawba in 1904, was initially sold to textile mills and then used to light the region. Duke’s reservoirs helped build Charlotte and neighboring cities, too, because they no longer had to draw water from rivers or wells.
The epic task took six decades. Duke flooded thousands of acres bought from willing and unwilling landowners. Legislators long ago gave electric utilities the power to condemn land.
Now the Catawba is a chain of 11 reservoirs, running 225 miles from Lake James west of Morganton to Lake Wateree north of Columbia.
For all its concrete dams and throbbing power plants, the Catawba still stirs deep-rooted passions.
I sat among the hundreds of people who came to defend their river in the three years it took to negotiate terms of Duke’s new hydro license.
Among them was the late Parker Whedon, a Charlotte lawyer who had paddled and fished the free-flowing Catawba for decades. Whedon argued that Duke should restore what an 1890s account called the “rolling, seething, foaming, rushing water” of the Catawba’s rippingest rapids.
Duke diverted water from the rapids a century ago, leaving a dry riverbed in South Carolina. “I’ve felt deprived all my life that I haven’t seen the Great Falls of the Catawba,” Whedon told me in 2002.
He won, at least in part. Duke agreed to restore water to the rapids for whitewater paddlers on up to 28 weekend days a year from March through October.
Essential human right
The many rivers and creeks of the Southeast, including 17 river basins in North Carolina alone, bless the region with water.
But experts say parts of the globe – Saudi Arabia, India, the American Southwest – have passed “peak water,” the point at which freshwater is used or polluted faster than it is replenished.
It’s estimated that one in eight people globally, or 884 million, don’t have access to clean water – so many that the United Nations named it an essential human right in 2010.
California is in the fourth year of a drought that threatens the world’s richest food producing area. This year’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of nearly one-third of the state’s drinking water, was at its lowest point in 500 years, researchers say. Wildfires have burned more than 300,000 acres this year.
Despite North Carolina’s wealth of water, not all communities benefit equally from it.
The state has no system for sharing water, instead relying on an archaic property-rights law that, at least in theory, allows unlimited withdrawals. It is still compiling data on how much water flows into the 17 river basins and where it all goes.
Raleigh is searching for new supplies amid galloping growth. Saltwater is creeping into the wells of Wrightsville Beach and other coastal communities. Tiny Bakersville, in the mountains, hauled water in trucks for days after a disastrous line break a few years ago.
Some public utilities don’t know where much of their treated water goes, losing millions of dollars in revenue a year to leaky pipes or inaccurate meters. Nearly a third of the local government water systems run deficits because they’re under pressure to keep rates low.
And even the Catawba, with its pools of water, isn’t forever.
Learning from droughts
The advocacy group American Rivers has named the Catawba one of the nation’s most endangered rivers three times since 2001. The group cited growing demand for water and, in 2013, the threat of contamination from the coal ash ponds perched on its banks.
Government forecasts predict rising temperatures, more extreme heat and increased water scarcity for the Southeast in coming decades. Warming temperatures along the Catawba would increase evaporation, which already steals more water from the river than people, power plants and industries use together.
The basin has also seen a 10 percent drop in rainfall over the past half-century.
Two record droughts already this century sharpened attention on the river’s capacity to survive the next one. Growing demand for water makes communities more vulnerable to droughts.
A stubborn drought that peaked in 2002 left towns scrambling for water. I watched herons spear fish trapped on the dry lake bed of High Rock Lake east of Salisbury and farmers in Iredell County sell off cattle they couldn’t feed.
Drought returned in 2007 and 2008 as the worst in more than a century.
Charlotte utility workers became water cops, patrolling the streets for illegal lawn watering. The Catawba reservoirs’ drinking water capacity was essentially exhausted except for Lake James, near the headwaters, where water levels dropped 13 feet.
The dire conditions inspired new collaboration by Duke and the Catawba’s major water utilities.
The water group adopted a protocol in which, for the first time, all parties defined drought stages and responses in the same way, and with shared sacrifice. A Stage 1 drought, the region’s current condition as a summer drought winds down, triggers a 3 to 5 percent reduction in water use in both Morganton and Rock Hill.
Last year, the Catawba group released a water supply plan that looks 50 years into the future. Duke had done the same thing nearly a decade earlier with alarming results: Lake levels along the Catawba, it projected, could fall enough by 2050 that the pipes that suck water from the reservoirs could go dry.
The new plan concluded that with a few steps taken over decades, such as investing in changes that would let utilities draw water when lake levels are low, the Catawba could safely survive droughts until about 2100. The plan, and its regional approach, are viewed as a model of smart policy.
Duke is expected to keep its large share of water withdrawals, and then some, as the company retires old power plants and builds new ones.
The plan also assumes we will choose, or be forced, to use less and less water per person for decades to come. That trend is already underway – water use in Charlotte stayed lower even after restrictions ended after the 2007-2008 drought.
There is enough water, for generations, the plan says, to preserve the balance between water for energy and drinking.
It’s a solid plan that will change over time, says Charlotte Water Director Barry Gullet. But he adds: “You also have to recognize that you might be wrong.”
Sometimes when I pass the overfed python of Lake Norman or a reach of the free Catawba chuckling through rapids in South Carolina, my mind roams. I return to the summer days of my youth, to the perfect peace of a river and the wheels coming on.
This hot, dusty summer I thought about a future dry spell, and a choice I hope no one ever has to make.
Would we choose a glass of tap water, or the light of a lamp?