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A talk with the new keeper of the river

David Merryman became the Catawba River's second Riverkeeper on April 1, taking over the role of environmental guardian from Donna Lisenby.

Lisenby left to become riverkeeper of the upper Watauga River and to start Waterkeepers Carolinas, which will coordinate 14 riverkeeper and coastkeeper programs across the two states.

The nonprofit Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, which hires the riverkeeper, advocates for the preservation of the river and the communities in 14 N.C. and S.C. counties that lie in the Catawba's basin. Merryman's job will be to oversee the river in both states.

More than 1 million people, plus countless wildlife and aquatic life, depend on the river for drinking water.

The Catawba received national attention in April, when an environmental group, American Rivers, named the Catawba America's most threatened river. The Catawba and other rivers on the list face major threats that could severely harm them unless communities act immediately, American Rivers says.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation has raised numerous concerns about threats to the river. The threats include:

 Dumping industrial and agricultural wastes in area waterways.

 Intense development that spills silt and tainted runoff into the river basin.

 Dangerous levels of mercury in river fish due to coal-burning power plants.

 Frequent failures of municipal waste treatment systems, resulting in untreated water flowing into the river.

 The daily transfer of millions of gallons of Catawba water to neighboring river basins -- reducing the water available downstream for drinking, industrial needs, wildlife and recreation.

Merryman knows the river and its threats.

He became Lisenby's assistant riverkeeper in 2006. He left in August 2006 to seek a master's degree in applied ecology and conservation biology at Frostburg State University in Maryland.

Merryman recently talked with The Charlotte Observer about the Catawba, its problems and his role as Catawba Riverkeeper.

Q. You assume the title previously held by Donna Lisenby, the first and only riverkeeper in the foundation's 10-year life. How big are those shoes to fill?

First and foremost, they are impossible shoes to fill. She has been an insurmountable voice and advocate for the Catawba River that no one can hold a match to.

I do not claim to be a filler for Donna Lisenby's shoes; I claim to make my own shoes and fill those.

I am the new Catawba Riverkeeper and I have my own personal goals and my own voice as the Catawba Riverkeeper.

I hope that in this next decade we will continue here at the Catawba River Foundation the progress that the last decade has shown.

Q. The job also has changed, with Charlotte environmental attorney Rick Gaskins becoming executive director, the other role that Lisenby filled. Does that mean your job as riverkeeper is different from hers, or that you and Rick Gaskins each has more time to devote to your specific duties?

Donna likes to joke that it took two men to fill one woman's position. Splitting her role provides us a distinct possibility to differentiate our direction and be able to be a stronger voice and advocate on issues.

As riverkeeper, I will be the river's voice and make sure it is protected at all costs.

Q. What are the three biggest parts of your job?

Maintaining our water quantity (making sure the Catawba River continues to flow); ensuring water quality; and educating our citizens.

I do that in a multitude of ways: public speaking engagements, meetings with politicians and people of industry, and developers; and educating our citizens.

As assistant riverkeeper I was fortunate enough to learn from Donna Lisenby about how to coordinate and work with state agencies and industries that regulate and operate on the Catawba River.

Q. How often are you on the river?

I try to get out on the water one day a week. In my time on the water I try to get in touch with people who are using the river. As riverkeeper, I try to take the river's history in mind, so I want to know what the fisherman is catching, and what they have experienced over the years -- how things have changed -- and then telling them and anyone else who will listen to me about the importance of limiting our impact on the river.

Q. The American Rivers designation that the Catawba is America's most endangered river seems to run counter to what we see when we visit Mountain Island Lake or Lake Wylie or Lake Norman. The water looks OK. Explain the significance of this designation.

The designation is not based on water quality. It's based primarily on the fact that we are at a point of where we can provide a chance for our river to remain a resource for the region, as opposed to a dried up, polluted body of water that runs next to Charlotte or Hickory or Rock Hill or Camden (S.C.).

Luckily, we are already seeing some use and action taken from that declaration.

We have York and Mecklenburg county officials attempting to work together on a local level to determine what they can do to protect this limited resource.

We have concerned citizens that are stepping up and taking action to ask their elected officials to do their job.

Q. How can people who care about the Catawba and its lakes get more involved in protecting these resources?

First and foremost, support us at the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, and ask state and local elected officials to protect the water quality and quantity.

I do want people getting out on the water and using our natural resources, whether for fishing, skiing or cruising along on pontoon boats. I really love seeing people out there and using what we've got, and if they see me, let them know to stop and talk.

They will recognize me by our nice boat with Catawba Riverkeeper on the side.

David Merryman

Merryman, 24, was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. He came to North Carolina to attend Gardner-Webb University. He graduated magna cum laude, with a bachelor of science degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.

 Newlyweds: Merryman and Jennifer Berkow of Baltimore had a wedding date on Saturday in Savannah, Ga.

 For fun: He likes to run, fish, golf, play tennis and read non-fiction, including outdoor journals and science literature.

 If he had an extra $10 he would: Probably go get a cup of tea and sit down and have a nice conversation.

 Pet peeve about people who frequent the Catawba: Litter. A beer can, a Coke bottle . "I can't tell you how many I hit weekly (with his Catawba Riverkeeper boat) and pick up."

 Pet peeve about people who rarely visit the Catawba: Lack of knowing where their drinking water comes from.

Want to know more?

To learn more about the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, visit www.catawbariverkeeper.org or call 704-679-9494. To report pollution, call 888-679-9494, toll free.

Spider Lily Eco-Tour

The Catawba River Foundation will host a kayak-canoe tour of blooming spider lilies at one of the few free-flowing stretches of the Catawba River on Saturday.

The Spider Lily Eco-Tour will begin with registration about 10:30 a.m. and last until about 2 p.m. at Landsford Canal State Park, about 40 miles south of Charlotte.

The 448-acre park features a well-preserved stretch of a canal that operated along the river from 1820 to about 1835.

This stretch of the Catawba has one of the largest known stands of rocky shoals spider lilies. They bloom from late May to early June and can be viewed from canoes and kayaks or from shoreline park trails and a deck.

Visitors can bring their own canoes or kayaks, plus a picnic lunch to eat during the tour.

The foundation will provide guides and transportation between the put-in and take-out locations.

Also, Catawba River Expeditions, a canoe and kayak rental company that specializes in Catawba paddling excursions, will have about five one-person kayaks available to rent on Saturday for $20 per trip. The company recommends that people renting kayaks have paddling experience. To learn more about Catawba River Expeditions, visit www.catawba-river-expeditions.com.

To reach Landsford Canal State Park from Charlotte, take I-77 south to S.C. exit 77 (highways 5 and 21). Turn left at the top of the ramp and go 16 miles south until you see the park sign. Turn left. The park entrance is on the left.

For details and to make reservations contact Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman at 704-679-9494 or David@catawbariverkeeper.org

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