Dam changes will pump new life into large, southern river

At the turn of the 20th century, before hydroelectric dams sprouted in South Carolina’s largest rivers, the Great Falls of the Catawba-Wateree River were a popular attraction. The mighty river cascaded down a steep, rocky gulley — producing a roar so loud it could be heard long before the coursing waters came into view, according to historical accounts.

The falls were silenced in 1907, when a new hydroelectric dam diverted virtually all of the river into a manmade canal for the purpose of generating power. The dam transformed that steep stretch of the Catawba into a nearly dry channel occupied by boulders and stunted trees.

But the river will rise again.

Catawba River near Great Falls

This photo shows the section of the Catawba River that has been dry for most of the past century. This stretch of river was diverted into a manmade channel for the purpose of generating electricity.
Photo: Ron Ahle

As part of a new 40-year operating license, Duke Energy has agreed to improve the environmental performance of the 11 hydroelectric dams it operates on the Catawba-Wateree River, which flows through North Carolina and South Carolina. The utility will restore year-round flow throughout the Catawba-Wateree and make other changes that are expected to improve the river ecosystem, create new recreational opportunities and bolster tourism.

Among the most dramatic and anticipated changes: two sections of the Catawba that had little flow for most of the past century will be brought back to life. In Great Falls, South Carolina, restored flows will mean the return of whitewater rapids in a long-dormant stretch of the river.

“This is a monumental achievement that resulted from a very long and involved process, and it will produce some really great outcomes for people and nature,” said Gerrit Jöbsis, senior director of conservation programs at American Rivers.

Gerrit Jöbsis

Gerrit Jöbsis, American Rivers

American Rivers, a longtime Charles Stewart Mott Foundation grantee, was part of the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition. The coalition worked for a decade with Duke Energy and a collection of government agencies, municipalities and environmental organizations to hammer out terms of the new operating license for the utility’s dams.

Mott supported the work of the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition with $265,000 in grants.

“The relicensing process provided a rare opportunity to change how the dams are managed and minimize ecological damage to the river,” said Sam Passmore, director of the Mott Foundation’s Environment Program. “The new operating methods at the dams will make the river healthier, create more recreational opportunities for anglers and paddlers, and generate economic benefits for communities along the river.”

Among the changes:

  • the new license will promote sustainable use of the Catawba-Wateree River;
  • oxygen levels in the river will increase, improving fish and wildlife habitats;
  • natural flooding will be restored in a portion of the river that flows through the Congaree National Park, home to one of the nation’s most significant wetland forests;
  • generous water releases for boaters and anglers will enhance public enjoyment of the river; and
  • duke Energy will provide $16 million for land conservation in the river basin and $4 million to develop public recreational amenities. The company also will set aside 2,455 acres of land for conservation, recreation and water-quality protection.

“The significance of the new license cannot be overstated,” said Steve Jester, Duke Energy’s vice president of water strategy, hydro licensing and lake services. “[It] ensures the Catawba-Wateree River will continue to support and sustain communities across the Carolinas for at least the next 40 years.”

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