U.S. Supreme Court wades into water war

The water war between North Carolina and South Carolina may soon go before the nation’s highest court.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if Duke Energy Corp. can continue to intervene in a lawsuit between the states. The court is also considering the city of Charlotte and a Carolina water utility’s ability to weigh-in on how the Catawba River’s limited resources should be divvied up among competing interests.

As reported in the Charlotte Business Journal, in October 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear South Carolina’s complaint that North Carolina takes more than its fair share of water from the river. South Carolina’s suit cites both Charlotte and Union County as threats because of booming growth and greater demands for water.

But the Supreme Court suit in turn endangers Duke Energy’s existing authority over the river as well as the rights of two local utilities to pull drinking water out of the Catawba.
Further, a decision in the case could ultimately chart how communities along the Catawba River basin will grow, as development is tied to access to a healthy water supply.

In the 1800s, after efforts to make the waterway navigable for travel failed, the river was harnessed for producing electricity for the region’s cotton mills. Thus began what is now Duke Energy, which manages six reservoirs in North Carolina, four in South Carolina and one on the state border at Lake Wylie.

Duke owns and operates the reservoirs along the river to cool its nuclear and coal-fired plants and power its hydroelectric dams.

The energy company holds and releases water in the reservoirs, raising and lowering the lake levels according to its power-generation needs. And that, in turn, affects the amount of water that flows through the river.

Duke’s power over the river comes from a 50-year license, and renewal of that permit is currently being processed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

While the license was set to expire at the end of 2008, Duke was given a one-year extension while it gathers necessary approvals. Duke spokeswoman Marilyn Lineberger says that’s a typical part of the application process. Public hearings on the new license are expected in March.

The relicensing process involved three years of work with 70 other groups that use the river, including government officials and business leaders. The pending new license comes with an agreement that Duke will increase the amount of water that flows in the river.

South Carolina’s request before the Supreme Court would “re-apportion the river’s water and that action could undo the equitable balance achieved in that three-year relicensing negotiation,” Lineberger says.

South Carolina’s Supreme Court suit was sparked by North Carolina permits allowing the city of Charlotte’s water utility to transfer water from one river basin to another. One permit allows a maximum of 33 million gallons of water to flow out of the Catawba and into the Rocky River.

Adding fuel to the fire, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities allows the cities of Concord and Kannapolis to take up to 10 million gallons per day. Union County has permission to transfer 5 million gallons per day and has a request to bump up that number to 13 million.
SC’s suit contends these interbasin water transfers damage South Carolina cities and towns because water is taken out of the Catawba, worsening drought conditions. The river is a closed system, where treated sewage is pumped back into the Catawba to prevent the river from running dry.

And so, as communities in North Carolina grow, so does the concern from South Carolina. The greatest threat to South Carolina’s share of the river comes from Charlotte. It’s the biggest community on the Catawba and the largest provider of water and sewage treatment in the river basin.

With the river’s limited supply poised to become a restricted asset, that also means Charlotte’s ability to grow is at risk.

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