According to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people, or one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of water scarcity. It’s a problem that affects every continent and is expected to be an issue for many societies in coming decades.
In the United States, drought levels from moderate to exceptional stretch from California to Texas; the Colorado River is starting to run dry in places; and Lake Mead, which currently supplies water for 22 million people, may be a thing of the past by 2021.
When most people think of water scarcities, they think of water for household use: water for drinking, showering, washing clothes or watering lawns. What many don’t realize is the essential part water plays in their local economy.
Water as an Economic Driver
Water is an economic driver. The agricultural sector most obviously depends on water availability, but so do many other industries. Water supply/demand imbalances also affect decisions on corporate locations and expansions. In other words, an adequate water supply supports a region’s economic growth.
For the same reasons, a growing region requires more water. And Charlotte is growing. With a projected annual population growth rate of 1.98 percent and an annual job growth rate of 3.1 percent, the Charlotte Metro Area (including parts of Upstate South Carolina) ranked ninth in Forbes 2015 list of America’s Fastest-Growing Cities.
Water for the people and businesses in the Charlotte Metro Area is supplied by the Catawba-Wateree River Basin extending from the headwaters of the Catawba on the slopes of Grandfather Mountain near Blowing Rock, N.C., to the Wateree River’s confluence with the Congaree River east of Columbia, S.C.
The Catawba and the Wateree Rivers are essentially one 224-mile river that begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and flows through the Charlotte metropolitan area into Lake Wateree in South Carolina, 30 miles northeast of Columbia. The name of the river changes to the Wateree River in Lake Wateree and eventually joins with the Congaree River upstream of Lake Marion.
There are 11 major lakes or reservoirs in the basin and the dams that form these lakes have a major impact on the flow of the river. Largest of these in terms of usable storage capacity are Lake Norman, Lake James and Lake Wateree which provide recreation, water and hydroelectric power for the area. Duke Energy is the managing authority for the reservoirs and 13 hydropower stations (Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project) under a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The licensing process defines how the basin will be managed over the license term, which could be up to 50 years. During Duke Energy’s re-licensing process with FERC (the license, issued in 1958, expired in 2008), a water supply study uncovered a critical problem. Namely that, without intervention, given the current rate of growth in this region, the water demands on the Catawba River would reach maximum capacity by the year 2048.
It was in conjunction with the re-licensing process, in concern for this situation, that the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group (CWWMG) was formed in 2007.
Catawba-Wateree Water Management
The CWWMG is a 501(c)(3) non-profit formed to identify, fund and manage projects that will enhance the capabilities of the Catawba-Wateree River to provide water resources for human needs such as water supply, power production, industry, agriculture and commerce, while maintaining the river’s ecological health.
The CWWMG has 19 members; one member representing each of the 18 public water systems in North and South Carolina which rely on the 4,750-square mile river basin, and one member representing the utility company Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC, which built the reservoir system beginning in the early 1900s through the 1960s.
“The CWWMG actually started as something adversarial and turned into something great,” remarks Barry Gullet, director of Charlotte Water and CWWMG chairman since its founding.
“During Duke Energy’s re-licensing process, Duke explored the idea of charging a withdrawal fee from the public suppliers who take water from the lakes,” Gullet continues. “The water suppliers, naturally, weren’t happy about paying a new fee. We had a lot of back and forth but Duke was very forthcoming about the purpose of the fee—for reinvestment to improve the system.
“The water suppliers agreed this was a good idea but wanted a voice in the improvements. So we decided to create an entity to include the water suppliers and Duke in which all members paid dues and had a voice in how the money was spent and the management of projects.”
Funding for the group consists of annual membership dues totaling $550,000 and approximately $1.5 million of contributions from third parties collected since the group’s formation.
“That sounds like a lot of money,” says Jeff Lineberger, water strategy and hydro licensing director for Duke Energy and CWWMG secretary/treasurer, “but it’s not when you’re talking about doing things on the scale of a river basin. We’ve been able to bring in resources and get meaningful, necessary and important work done that wouldn’t have been done without the CWWMG.”
“The CWWMG is unique in the region and perhaps, in the country. Both our membership and focus are broad,” Gullet explains. “We’re not a regulatory group and we don’t make policy. Our group’s mission is as a platform and foundation for policymakers, doing the work and providing the science they need to make policy.
“Also we’re incorporated as a 501(c)(3) which allows us to bring in resources from areas even outside the basin to benefit the region. That’s one of our successes.”
To date, the group has provided training to public water suppliers in a structured auditing process, partnered with the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) to expand and monitor a network of groundwater monitoring wells, and set up critical points in the lake to provide data about sedimentation rates to improve their forecast modeling.
They’ve also worked with North Carolina State University and Duke University on a study of smart irrigation controllers and collaborated with the Water Research Foundation on The Safe Yield Study.
“‘Safe yield’ is how much water you can rely on getting from the river under all conditions. It measures the dependability of a water supply source,” explains Gullet. “The study looked at what other river systems globally had done to make their rivers last longer, and identified the options available to us for the Catawba and how we should factor in the effects of climate change on long-term projections and in the modeling we had done. The study was a critical foundation for the Water Supply Master Plan (WSMP).”
Water Supply Master Plan
Issued in 2014 and funded by the CWWMG, Duke Energy Foundation, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the WSMP is the largest and most ambitious CWWMG undertaking so far.
The goal of the WSMP is both critical and far-reaching: to ensure the water supply of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin can fully support the region’s growing needs into the next century. Water conservation is a cornerstone of the plan.
“Without significant effort to manage water consumption, this generation could see a time when there will not be enough water flowing into the Catawba-Wateree River to support more people moving into the heart of North or South Carolina,” warns Gullet. “Not enough water to support new jobs, produce more electricity drive new industry or ensure the quality of life we currently enjoy.”
“Water is a limited resource,” adds Lineberger. “It’s rainfall dependent. If we don’t change something about the way we use water, we’re going to have problems.”
Lineberger, a Duke Energy employee for 25 years whose responsibilities include water resource planning and drought management for Duke Energy’s 42 Carolinas’ reservoirs, speaks from experience.
“It was August 2002 and we were in the fourth year of, at that time, the drought of record for this river,” Lineberger remembers. “Inside Duke, we were sweating the remaining water supply in the lake system from a power generation standpoint. If it didn’t start raining soon, we were going to have serious issues.
“We called all the water suppliers dependent upon the system to a hotel in Charlotte and informed them that if we didn’t start getting some significant rainfall by the very next summer, we might exhaust the usable water storage in the Catawba River and lake system.
“That was the worst day of my working career,” he remarks. “I remember thinking that I never want to have to stand in front of these folks again and tell them that I’m afraid we may run out of water.”
Over four years and with input from public stakeholders representing lake users, local governments, state agencies and environmental interests, the CWWMG updated long-term water use projections for the river basin, evaluated options and developed long-term basin-wide strategies.
Through the process, the CWWMG found the following. Average annual regional precipitation has decreased about 10 percent over the last 50 years. Through growth, net water use is expected to increase by 122 percent by 2065. Available water could be considerably reduced by climate change due to an expected 11 percent increase in evaporation by 2050. And, basin-wide water use has decreased from 113 to 85 gallons per person from 2002 to 2011.
The plan’s recommended strategies include further improving water use efficiency and raising summer lake levels in Lake James, Norman and Wylie to increase storage.
The WSMP also revised portions of the Low Inflow Protocol (LIP) to generate a quicker response to drought conditions. The LIP allows Duke Energy and other large river basin water users to determine the state of the water supply, and through a series of triggers based on conditions, take prescribed actions to conserve that supply.
If the WSMP is implemented, the CWWMG estimates that the river basin’s water supply can be extended an additional 50 years to 2100, providing a reliable source of water for drinking, continued economic development capacity, and support for the electric power needs of the growing region.
The Water/Energy Nexus
“This is a long range plan,” emphasizes Lineberger, “but with this plan we’re doing long-range planning across two sectors: water and energy. There’s a water/energy nexus. It takes water to produce energy and meet our customers’ needs but it also takes energy to supply water to our public water suppliers and their customers.
“You need to plan water and energy together because they both use the same resource and serve the same households. We have to become more water usage efficient to preserve our water supply, but because of the link between the two, becoming more energy efficient will also help preserve the water supply.”
To that end, Duke Energy has more than 20 different energy conservation programs available to households and businesses in North and South Carolina. “You can be more efficient by paying attention to how you use water and electricity,” says Lineberger. “When you have the opportunity to make changes in your home or business on items that use a lot of water or electricity, our programs can help you make better decisions.”
While the WSMP is the most significant effort to manage the water supply of the Catawba-Wateree Basin since construction of the reservoir system, it is not without its critics.
The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF), a 501(c)(3) founded in 1997 to advocate and educate for the preservation of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin, has commented on the Water Supply Master Plan as falling short in considering all variables, impacts and possibilities; claiming it fails to take into consideration the economic impact of drought on the revenue to counties, local governments and businesses along the waterway as well as lost recreation to the public.
They also criticize the water supply plan for not addressing issues about Duke Energy’s power plants’ water consumption and the dramatic effect on water supply made by inter-basin transfers in which water is removed from one river basin and transferred to another river system.
The CRF also took issue with elements of the CHEOPS (Computerized Hydroelectric Operations and Planning Software) model that provides the statistical foundation of the WSMP.
“The Water Supply Master Plan is not a ‘one and done,’” says Lineberger. “The current plan is a snapshot of where we are right now but the process is ongoing. There’s going to be more work, more scope added, as well as maintaining data and monitoring trends to make sure we’re on the path we thought we were with the assumptions and recommendations we made.”
“Water quantity was the first phase but we’re planning another phase to address the critical issue of water quality,” says Gullet. “Once we receive the necessary regional support to advance the master plan, we look forward to pursuing subsequent phases. We will also update the master plan as appropriate or at least by every 10 years to ensure it remains a living document.”
“There’s a lot more work to be done and the CWWMG is taking on that challenge,” adds Lineberger.
It Takes a Region
The CWWMG has many supporters. One of particular note is Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter. “If you look around the state, what the CWWMG is doing is very much ahead of the curve,” says Clodfelter. “Ensuring an adequate, sustainable supply of water is critical to the future competitiveness of the region.
“There’s overriding federal regulatory decision-making over all U.S. navigable waters but in terms of developing strategies and how we’re going to provide sustainable water supplies, those initiatives and that leadership has to come from the local level.
“If the region grows as projected, a large amount of that growth will occur outside of the Catawba River Basin, so in the next stage of this planning, after that 50-year horizon, we’re going to have to look at the economics of developing the water resource in the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin.
“We’ll need to work with other communities. We’re going to have management and regulatory challenges. We’ve already seen the controversy that occurred a few years back with the inter-basin transfers of Concord and Kannapolis.”
Not only is water a critical community issue, it is also a controversial one. Concord and Kannapolis’ inter-basin transfer (IBT) out of the Catawba River Basin sparked a Supreme Court case.
In South Carolina v. North Carolina, South Carolina sought equal apportionment of the Catawba River, claiming that the IBTs allowed by North Carolina limited water flow downstream and harmed South Carolina communities and businesses.
The case was settled in 2010 in a relatively short period of time, partly because of the relationships and communication engendered by Duke Energy’s re-licensing process and the outgrowth of groups from that process to include the CWWMG, according to Clodfelter.
“One of the most impactful results of the group is the communication among the water suppliers up and down the basin and with Duke,” says Gullet. “Before the re-licensing process and this group, chances are a water supplier didn’t know the water supplier more than one county away. Now, we not only know each other, but we also know what each supplier is doing and we’re working together on plans.
“Part of the CWWMG’s five-year strategic plan and a natural outgrowth of the WSMP is a more regional water supply master plan.”
Currently, North and South Carolina are working well together and Lineberger credits the CWWMG as a fundamental reason for that. “Because of the CWWMG, water suppliers in both states have worked together,” he says. “They’ve recognized that water is a limited resource and we all have our straws in the same cup. We’ve got to be mindful of what each of us needs, not just our own needs, and share in the management responsibility.
“The river doesn’t care about manmade political boundaries,” Lineberger continues. “Rainfall drives a river and rainfall only follows the law of gravity so we’ve got to figure out ways to get beyond political jurisdictions. We can’t work like self-contained entities from a water standpoint.
“Water is a global issue with local solutions. This water management group is working together to come up with solutions so the Catawba-Wateree River Basin can last for a long, long time.”