Lake Rhodhiss Boating Access Area in Connelly Springs. Michael Gebelein / Carolina Public Press

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Regional environmental advocacy groups are hopeful that their lobbying efforts will succeed in helping derail proposed legislation to remove buffer zones that currently protect areas on the banks of the Catawba River and its lake system from development.

Senate bill 434, “Amend Environmental Laws 2,” was introduced by Republican Sens. Andy Wells (Alexander, Catawba), Norman Sanderson (Carteret, Craven, Pamlico) and Bill Cook (Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans) and drew condemnation from environmentalist organizations nearly immediately after the language ordering the repeal of buffer rules along the Catawba River was introduced in late April.

The bill passed the Senate in April with unanimous opposition from Democrats, as well as opposition from Republicans Jeff Tarte (Mecklenburg) and Tamara Barringer (Wake), with Tarte going so far as to tell the Charlotte Observer editorial board, in a discussion of the bill, that “there’s an endless supply of stupid in state government.”

Multiple media reports said the proposal to remove the “riparian buffers” – a 50-foot zone around the Catawba River and its lakes where development is banned – was inserted into the environmental law regulatory bill by Wells, a Hickory real estate developer. The bill calls for the state Environmental Management Commission to repeal a nearly 16-year-old rule that mandates buffer zones from Lake James in McDowell County and Burke counties down the Catawba River and its lake system to the South Carolina line.

The repeal would affect, in addition to Lake James and the Catawba River, Lake Rhodhiss, Lake Hickory, Lookout Shoals Lake, Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie. The bill also strips local governments of the ability to enact their own buffer zones along waterways. Many of these are important to communities in nearby counties as sources of drinking water, recreation and electrical power.

Riparian buffers are natural areas around water sources that scientists say are vital to preventing erosion, filtering pollution and providing habitats for aquatic life. Wells, in a blog post on his website, called opposition to repealing the riparian buffer rule “veneer environmentalism” and described the buffer zone in terms of a property rights issue.

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“When the state tells a family how to use the 50 feet of their property by the river or lake, that’s a ‘taking,’ ” Wells wrote on April 26. “The state just took part of the family’s property. And it’s a taking without compensation. If the DOT wants to build a road across private property it pays the landowner for a right-of-way. But the Department of Environment pays a homeowner nothing when it takes part of his property for a riparian buffer.”

Wells argued that runoff from yards is a bigger threat to water sources than any pollution that a buffer zone could prevent. Riparian buffers are “false solutions” that “are a solution based on politics not science,” he said.

Wells also wrote that one of the reasons he inserted the riparian buffer repeal into the bill is because of a proposal from the city of Hickory in Catawba County to build a riverwalk along the Catawba River that was, he said, shot down by state regulators. According to a report in the Hickory Daily Record, “the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has not outright denied the City of Hickory” but Wells told the paper that “the requirements the city would have to meet would cause the cost of the project to increase.”

Reaction to bill

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, whose organization strongly opposes the removal of buffer zones along the river, spoke before the Senate Rules Committee about the situation in April.

“The Catawba and its lakes need the buffer more than most river systems because so much of the river is dammed up into lakes with recreation, development and drinking water intakes,” he said, according to a released text of his comments.

“Wave action from boats will quickly erode away unstabilized shoreline, creating not just water quality and safety issues with sedimentation but also loss of property. Fertilizer use on lakefront lots also necessitates preserving some natural, undisturbed land to help filter nutrients and other contaminants in runoff, as buffers have been proven to do. Water quality can degrade quickly when water stagnates and does not flush through the system, and this is a major issue given that the river and its lakes also supply millions in the region with drinking water. Every little bit – including buffers – helps. These proven benefits of buffers are why buffers were passed for the Catawba and other rivers.”

A spokeswoman for Duke Energy, which has some management responsibilities on the Catawba River lakes in North Carolina, said the company is evaluating the bill.

“We are currently reviewing the legislation to ensure we understand the impacts to the Catawba River and lake system,” spokeswoman Danielle Peoples wrote in an email to CPP. “Duke Energy’s goal is to ensure these shared water resources are maintained as economic, environmental, recreational and cultural resources for our region.”

Perkins said a noncommittal stance from Duke isn’t uncommon when it comes to this type of bill.

“The lakes are their ‘projects’ (the full-pond level is considered the ‘project boundary’),” Perkins wrote in an email to CPP. “You would think they wouldn’t want their reservoirs to fill up, but they rarely if ever speak up on issues like this with legislation regarding the health of their reservoirs.”

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Perkins said the removal of buffer zones around waterways could increase the pollution in drinking water in McDowell County, where plans are in place to build a drinking water intake system on the lake in the future. Morganton, the largest city in Burke County, gets its drinking water from the Catawba River. More pollution in the water systems could mean higher costs to the counties, due to increased treatment costs, according to Perkins.

The Catawba Riverkeeper organization isn’t the only one urging lawmakers to reconsider removing the riparian buffer provision from state law. The Lake James Environmental Association, formed in 1973 and based in Nebo, whose goal is “to protect and enhance the health and beauty of Lake James and its watershed,” has asked its members to contact their legislators and voice their opposition to Senate bill 434, according to the Morganton News Herald.

State Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke) told the News Herald that he didn’t believe the bill would “pass the House without changes” and that he was working to gain an exemption for local laws that protect waterways, if the bill moves forward. The bill passed a first reading in the House on April 26 and was referred to the rules committee. It’s been in that committee ever since.

The legislation only applies to the Catawba River basin, but that system is one of several in the state with riparian buffer rules. The Neuse River basin, Tar-Pamlico River basin, Randleman Lake watershed, Goose Creek watershed and Jordan Lake watershed each also have rules regarding development at the water’s edge. While there currently isn’t pending legislation to remove riparian buffers along those water systems, Perkins said the Catawba River proposal is “a step in the wrong direction.”

“We have done so little in recent years to continue to build on protections to improve water quality,” Perkins said. “We’ve just been fighting rollbacks. So I do fear what might happen in other basins.”

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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