The Catawba Riverkeeper: Interview with Sam Perkins
The Catawba River, approximately 220 miles long, rises in the Appalachian Mountains and drains into Piedmont. It is the source for water, power and recreation to millions of people along its meandering path. But man and nature have both negatively impacted this important vessel of life. Population growth in the basin has put severe strains on the river and water quality at many locations is impaired. Drought and pollution are concerns as well. The Catawba River has been designated as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers three times.
Established in 1997, The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation advocates for the health, protection and enjoyment of the Catawba River watershed. Sam Perkins is the foundation’s current riverkeeper whose responsibilities include alerting and educating the public on issues that impact the quality of the water and habitat areas. Natural Awakenings spoke with Perkins bout the current state of the Catawba River.
In March, a judge ruled that Duke Energy will have to clean up sources of groundwater contamination at its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation has long been involved in the fight to have Duke Energy take responsibility for its actions which damage the environment. How do you feel about this ruling and where will your efforts be concentrated now?
This was a significant ruling, which really just reaffirmed to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) that it indeed has the authority (and needs to exercise it) to require an immediate elimination of the source of groundwater contamination, and DENR did not need to continue to defer to endlessly studying the situation. The directive did not formally require Duke to clean up its coal ash, but this affirmation will be extremely helpful with the lawsuits that the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation has filed and that remain in state and federal courts.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are a concern for your organization. What are they and how can improper maintenance of them be hazardous to the Catawba and our drinking water supply?
The Clean Water Act of 1972 developed the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to coordinate point-source discharges – basically, waste discharges out of pipes. NPDES permits have contaminant limits as well as monitoring and sampling protocols. And that system has made a major difference in documenting and monitoring point-source pollution. However, what has flared up has been non-point-source pollution, including runoff from yards and fields, and one of the most problematic forms of non-point-source pollution is nutrient overloading, which comes from waste and fertilizer.
These CAFOs end up using waste as fertilizer. Because of regulatory advantages including shielding from public record laws, poultry CAFOs specifically have exploded onto the scene, with around 800 poultry CAFO houses in the NC portion of the Catawba River basin. Each house has tens of thousands of chickens. This compares to one swine CAFO and 20 cattle/dairy CAFOs. We do regular flyovers of the basin to look for waste being left outside uncovered, where it can run off into waterways and become a potent source of nutrients, bacteria and even metals. We also look and sample for waste spread onto fields that is discharging into waterways. The waste should be staying on fields and being taken up by crops, but there are major concerns with over-application.
Many people dispose of pharmaceutical medications by flushing them down the toilet to keep them out of the wrong hands. However, it can be difficult to get these chemicals out of the water when it is treated and they can become part of the system which includes our drinking water. How has this affected the Catawba and what programs do you have in place to change this practice?
One of the most difficult things to convey to the public is that there is no one machine where you can pop in a sample and have the machine return every atom, every molecule, and every concentration of those. Sampling is not that simple. And especially in the pharmaceutical industry, we have created innumerable molecules to treat disease and to improve overall quality of life. A lot of these molecules are meant to be very durable to arrive intact to where they are supposed to have their effect in our bodies.
Thus, wastewater treatment plants have trouble treating for them in sewage (a lot of pharmaceuticals are not taken up by our bodies but rather pass through in our waste), and then water treatment plants again have trouble with removing them, but sadly, at both ends, we just don’t have a good idea for abundance.
When tested for, pharmaceuticals show up, albeit in very low concentrations. However, even at low concentrations, prolonged exposure can cause health problems, and treated drinking water would definitely be a chronic exposure pathway. The best thing people can do is not to flush expired or unused medication down the toilet. Counties have sheriff’s offices and events where citizens can drop off medication for proper disposal, which is generally incineration.
In the recent past, the Charlotte area has suffered severe droughts in the summer. The lack of rain was compounded by increased demands for water from the Catawba River, thus enhancing the consequences of the drought. How could future droughts affect us and what changes can be made now to best manage water so we may retain a strong economy and healthy environment?
We are running out of water as we pack more people into what is a relatively small basin, and basins to the east want our water. Duke Energy’s own numbers indicate that water demand will exceed supply by 2048, and that’s looking at normal rainfall. Our concern is that a lot of the lakes will start to dry up and look like Lake Hartwell has for so many years in South Carolina. That creates an economic issue for both local businesses and local government.
Property tax base is stacked up around lakes. You might have more than a quarter of property tax base within a few percent of the county’s acreage around a lake. Those nice homes that are desirable for waterfront access won’t be desirable and worth as much if there’s no water in the lake. That, in turn, will decrease property tax revenues and force counties to raise taxes on others in the county.
Our other concern with Duke Energy is that there are no plans for reduction in water consumption (meaning it leaves the river and is not returned) that occurs from evaporation associated with thermoelectric power plants (i.e., coal and nuclear), of which we have five in a 39-mile span of the Catawba River. Duke is responsible for half of the water consumption in the basin, with residential, agricultural and industrial sources consuming the rest, but water management plans only call for residential and some agricultural reductions when water gets low.
If Duke would reduce its water consumption, which other utilities have done, then we might not get to critical drought stages. For now, though, the proposal is to have local water utilities (and residential water users) bear the brunt of the cost by lowering their physical intakes so that waterways can be drained lower during times of drought.