‘Endless supply of stupid’ threatens Charlotte area’s drinking water

The Observer editorial board

The N.C. Senate voted to eliminate 50-foot buffers that have protected the Catawba River’s water quality since 2001.
The N.C. Senate voted to eliminate 50-foot buffers that have protected the Catawba River’s water quality since 2001. 1998 File Photo

Thirty-one of Jeff Tarte’s fellow Republican senators voted last week to remove buffers from the Catawba River. What does Tarte think about that?

“There’s an endless supply of stupid in state government,” he told the Observer editorial board.

Tarte is more familiar with buffers on the Catawba than almost all of his colleagues. After all, he has one in his backyard in Cornelius. Tarte lives on Lake Norman, and for years he has seen how the undisturbed strip of land along the shores protects Charlotte’s drinking supply and provides a habitat for wildlife that is “mind bogglingly awesome.”

The Senate, led by Sen. Andy Wells of Hickory, voted last week to stop protecting that strip of land throughout the Catawba and to allow property owners to develop it as they please right up to the water’s edge. Some individual counties have approved additional buffer protections. Senate Bill 434 would obliterate those as well. The bill was sent to the House.

Supporters say they see it as a property-rights issue. The government, they say, shouldn’t be able to tell owners what they can and can’t do with their land. Except government does so all the time in the form of easements, utility lines and other uses. And buyers of land on the Catawba know the restrictions when they buy.

The state plays an important role in protecting the environment and specifically the river, Tarte says.

“The Catawba River is our drinking water, for God’s sakes,” Tarte said. “There is a role for government; that buffer is part of protecting our environment. Being conservative also means being a conservationist.”


There was little debate in the Senate before the vote, and certainly no presentation of research on the impact of buffers.

“Where’s the scientific evidence we’re not going to harm our drinking supply?” Tarte said. “Then once we do, what’s it going to take to remediate it? When you do stupid, it can be really expensive.”

The environmental value of buffers is not in question. They act as a trap for nitrogen and prevent nutrients and other contaminants from rushing into lakes and rivers. They help prevent erosion, keep the water clean and provide animal habitat and an aesthetically pleasing landscape. If anything, buffers need to be expanded beyond the Catawba’s mainstem to its tributaries, not eliminated.

The Catawba buffers were put in place in 2001. There was some public backlash, but the Environmental Management Commission – made up of Republicans and Democrats – understood their scientific value. A couple of years later, the legislature made those temporary rules permanent in bipartisan fashion. In the House, for example, the vote was 102-4.

Today, it appears, politics triumphs over science. At least in the Senate. The House can still stop this bad idea, and voters who care about having clean drinking water should let those legislators know what they think.