Troubled Waters: Protecting Charlotte's Most Endangered Resource

Paddling through spider lilies
Paddling through spider lilies Catawba Riverkeeper
Made Possible by
Curated by

The Catawba-Wateree River is an amazing resource. It’s the main source of water for some 2 million people in the greater Charlotte area. The River provides motivation and cooling water to a power generation system, which creates around 8,900 megawatts of electricity. And, of course, its lakes and streams offer countless recreational opportunities from fishing to boating to paddling.

A resource as important as this requires protection, and that’s no easy job.

Flowing for 320 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Lake Marion in South Carolina, the Catawba River Basin includes around 5,000 total miles of waterways passing through 24 counties and 2 states. These same waters form the western, aquatic spine of Charlotte, and they are among the most endangered in the country.

Enter the Catawba Riverkeeper. The small group of dedicated professionals and their volunteer army—or perhaps it’s navy—watch over the basin, raise awareness to what ails it, and introduce a new generation to its importance.

SUP offers a new way for Charlotteans to enjoy the basin
SUP offers a new way for Charlotteans to enjoy the basin Catawba Riverkeeper

We recently had a chat with Emilee Syrewicze, the new Executive Director of the Catawba Riverkeeper. She filled us in on the state of the basin, how we can help improve it, and her favorite places to paddle along its shores.

What does it mean that the Catawba is one of the most endangered rivers?

American Rivers publishes a yearly list (of the most endangered rivers). The Catawba is consistently on that list. We have 4 of the 44 high hazard coal ash sites in the country. We’re the nation’s most electrified river. In Mecklenburg County there is a 100% impairment of our creeks which means they’re not fit for prolonged human contact. There’s also a fish ban on 100% of the Catawba so children and women of child bearing age shouldn’t eat any fish from the river and adult men maybe can eat it about once a week.

An evening paddle on the Catawba is perfect for wildlife viewing
An evening paddle on the Catawba is perfect for wildlife viewing Catawba Riverkeeper

What is the Riverkeeper’s part in protecting the Catawba

We have a multi-faceted approach. The first thing is we do the technical work. Sam (Perkins), our Riverkeeper, is there to oversee the testing we do. We do sediment testing, fish tissue sampling, fecal coliform testing. He is constantly doing fly overs to watch the coal ash sites and concentrated animal feeding operations. We have over 1000 of those in the basin. The (animal) waste is used for fertilizer which leads to excess nitrogen and other minerals in the river.

We also work with local, state, and the federal government to effect policy that can be harmful or helpful to our work.

Finally, we educate. We have a very vibrant summer youth kayak program. This year we have seen over 320 kids go through the program. It’s free for them. They get a hydrology lesson, a water safety lesson, and a conservation lesson. Then they get to kayak with our education director and her assistant.

It’s great because many of these kids are from the city and have never even been on the river or even knew there was a river near them. We work with boys and girls clubs. It’s a three day program with one day of lessons, the second day they kayak, and the third is a recap.

Educating a new generation of river advocates
Educating a new generation of river advocates Catawba Riverkeepers

How are your volunteers involved?

Each major lake has a Lakekeeper or Covekeeper. They help us monitor the basin. They’re usually the first people to notice things like huge sedimentation problems or pollution. A lot of times, when you read the newspapers about fish kills or swimming advisories reported, it’s because of those keeper volunteers noticing something. They have a training they complete called Muddy Water Watch. It’s a 3 or 4 day training by Sam. He teaches them what to look for.

Are there other options for volunteers to help?

We frequently have clean ups. We’ll have a couple huge cleanups this fall. We typically have over 1000 volunteers. A lot of folks say “is a cleanup really doing that much?” Yeah, actually. We’ve gotten rid of all that legacy trash, that trash that’s been sitting there for 30 years, now we’re actually maintaining the lakes. Oct 10th is the Lake Norman clean up and Oct 3rd is the Lake Wylie sweep.

We also have smaller volunteer groups, like HP and Wells Fargo and the Aquarium in concord. They get their employees together, pick a creek or stream, and we help them organize that.

Volunteers have removed tons of trash from the basin
Volunteers have removed tons of trash from the basin Catawba Riverkeepers

What can we do, day to day, to help?

We’re essentially running out of water. With population growth plus a finite amount of replenishment—by 2030 or 2040, I expect us to have serious water supply problems in our basin. There’s not a whole lot you can do to up the water quantity.

We say the best way to conserve water is to conserve electricity. The electricity we use actually takes more water to generate than our direct water use (like drinking, watering lawns and so on).

If you live on or near a lake, it’s important that you take measures to reduce your impact. Fertilize your yard less, use native plants. Small things that if everyone did that, it would add up.

Also, just be vigilant. Keep an eye out. If you see chocolaty colored water into your cove, that’s not OK. If you see oily substance on the surface, let us know. It might be nothing, it might be something.

the Riverkeeper youth programs get kids paddling
the Riverkeeper youth programs get kids paddling Catawba Riverkeepers

There are so many ways to enjoy the River and its lakes, have you found any favorites?

We run two guided kayak trips that I think are marvelous. One we do is the Spider Lilly Eco Tour. The Catawba River is home to the largest stand of spider lilies on planet earth. It’s down at Lansford Canal State Park. They only bloom for about 2 weeks. We work with the park people to perfectly time it. It’s a really nice paddle.

A lot of people think, well, if the lilies aren’t out why go? But if you go the opposite direction of the lilies, north instead of south, it’s such a beautiful paddle. It just this slow water with islands, shady spots, and the historic canals. It’s just as beautiful when the lilies are out. It’s a really easy paddle. It’s not like you’re going over class 5 rapids. And they have some hiking trails there.

I also love Lake James. The hidden cove access area is a great place to put in. Lake James is great because it has this almost valley type feel. You feel like you’re paddling around in this valley.

We do a paddle out there in October but this year we’re talking about adding a hike to it. Just because it’s nice to get a different view of the lake. That whole day is going to be fun no matter if you’re a paddler or a hiker.

Paddling through spider lilies
Paddling through spider lilies Catawba Riverkeeper

In the middle of everything else you do, why is it important to get people on the water?

People are going to fight for things they love. You won’t love something until you experience it. A large portion of our population doesn’t see the river. They just turn on their tap and that’s how they get water. But we want to make a connection between people who don’t get to be on the water every day and the river. We want them to see this is a real, living thing that can support them but really needs our stewardship. Bringing people out to the river and them having a good time, we hope, over time, that it builds this sense of importance. Plus we want people to have fun out there.

You can connect with the Catawba River Keeper several ways. Volunteer for a cleanup effort, paddle with them this fall, or schedule them for a talk. Emilee and Sam give multiple talks each week to church, school, and civic groups. Most importantly, get out and paddle.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

Last Updated:

Next Up


The Lowdown on the Livin' Lush Cup


Bicycle Sundays: Dreams Do Come True for New York City Cyclists