Plan for new Catawba River reservoir returns

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comFebruary 16, 2013 

— A much-debated plan to create a new reservoir along the Catawba River is stirring again.

Mike Bailes, plant director for Catawba River Water Supply Project, said he expects to know the fate of a proposed 92-acre water storage facility in Van Wyck by early summer. Resource agencies visited his site in late January for the first time. He’s hopeful for a decision on the project that’s been publically discussed, praised and criticized for 16 months.

“It’s just cumbersome and long,” Bailes said of the approval process.

Catawba River Water Supply Project provides water to all of Lancaster and 80 percent of Union, N.C., counties. In October 2011, the group presented plans for a 92-acre reservoir beside the smaller one in Van Wyck. The existing pond has 1 million gallons of water, or three to seven days’ worth. The new reservoir would hold more than 1 billion gallons, good for 49 days.

The supply project withdrew its original submittal to state and federal agencies, but quickly reapplied to “restart the clock,” avoiding a state Department of Health and Environmental Control requirement that a decision be reached in one year. Bailes said Wednesday the details carried over from one submittal to the next.

Original estimates put the plan at $50 million. Bailes said his group hasn’t reconfigured the cost lately, but estimates it will be at least $30 million.

The reservoir hasn’t been without detractors. Moments after a consultant outlined the need for it at the 2011 meeting of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission, then-Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman criticized the plan as unnecessary and draining on the river. Proponents say it’s needed to prevent the utility from drying up during a drought. Opponents say there are existing connections that can be used.

“It’s the same project, so we have the same concerns,” said Sam Perkins, director of technical programs for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “We feel like it would be better for them to look for other alternatives.”

The foundation, along with advocacy group American Rivers and the Southern Environmental Law Center, submitted comments against the original plan and resubmitted in January following the utility’s move. Perkins said it would be “far more advantageous anyway” for the utility to look at existing water withdrawal sites on Lake Wylie. He’s concerned how a new reservoir would be filled during severe drought and whether the river could support it, compared to a contract with current withdrawers that would be subject to agreed-upon drought restrictions.

He’s also concerned a new reservoir would lead to expanded operations further draining the river.

“This planned treatment plant expansion depends upon the reservoir expansion,” state comments from the environmental group to state regulators. “The combined system will induce growth, which will in turn increase water demand and cause other significant environmental impacts.”

Utility officials say the reservoir wasn’t needed until work in recent years on Duke Energy’s federal hydroelectric relicensing project. Expected water flows now can’t be guaranteed in times of drought, which could leave Lancaster and Union County residents high and dry, Bailes said.

“It’s a drought buffer,” he said of the new project, “and it worries us. Right now we’ve got an agreement on releases, but they can’t guarantee that if we get in a Stage 4 drought.”

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