HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — The fight over the Catawba River raged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, drawing all sorts of opinions along the basin. However, the first drop of water has yet to be drawn.
An interbasin transfer from the Catawba to the Rocky River basin was approved by North Carolina officials for Concord and Kannapolis in 2007. It was challenged almost immediately.
The two cities and several groups, including the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, reached a settlement in 2009.
But South Carolina filed suit against North Carolina in the U.S. Supreme Court. Those states resolved their differences in 2010.
Two years later, the water isn’t flowing.
Tom Reeder, director of the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, said a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities transfer of up to 33 million gallons per day and the Concord/Kannapolis transfer of up to 10 million gallons per day are the two major approved interbasin transfers on the Catawba.
In 2011, the Charlotte utility drew an average 13.11 million gallons per day. Concord and Kannapolis drew less.
“They took nothing,” Reeder said. “They took zero from the Catawba.”
Barry Gullet, director with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, said there are interconnections between his group and the two cities. The pipes have been flushed as general maintenance, he said, but it doesn’t appear water has been withdrawn in 2012. Part of the issue is capacity.
The cities don’t have “anywhere near” the ability to draw 10 million gallons per day now based on the pipes in place, Gullet said. They “maybe” have capacity for 3 million gallons.
The decision to allow the interbasin transfer was made based on projected water needs through 2035. As part of its state settlement in 2009, the cities can’t draw more than 3 million gallons per day until July 1, 2015, and can’t draw any after that unless also drawing at least 5 million gallons per day from the Yadkin basin.
There is a transfer in place with the Yadkin basin for 6 million gallons per day.
There are several reasons, experts say, the Concord/Kannapolis plan isn’t as severe as it seemed when residents filled gymnasiums for public hearings and lawsuits were filed. Initially, the application was for up to 36 million gallons per day –roughly the flow of Crowders Creek – from the Catawba and Yadkin combined. Up to 28 million gallons per day could have come from the Catawba.
The lower number also caused the cities to evaluate water efficiency and conservation measures. Rick Gaskins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, perhaps the most vocal opponent of the Concord/Kannapolis, now commends work done in those cities for water preservation.
“They should be commended for what they’ve done,” he said. “They’re a great example.”
N.C. Rep. Mitch Gillespie said there also is the issue of time. Withdrawing nothing now doesn’t mean there won’t be water piped out at all.
“In another 20 years, they might be needing it,” he said.
Experts say the issue of interbasin transfer never will be entirely resolved. There’s talk of regional applications in coming years. There is push to evaluate how big or small of an area should be considered a basin or subbasin in North Carolina, the idea being larger basins would allow more transfers without crossing lines and requiring the interbasin transfer process.
N.C. Sen. Austin Allran said the Concord/Kannapolis case is interesting for issues moving forward, especially when the dialogue early in that debate was the cities couldn’t survive without the water and the communities along the Catawba couldn’t afford to give it away.
“After all that, they’re still not doing it,” Allran said, “and they haven’t dried up.”