Charlotte can't join water suit

South Carolina suing North Carolina over water flow in Catawba River

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON - A divided U.S. Supreme Court has denied Charlotte's bid to join a lawsuit over water rights between North Carolina and South Carolina.

The court agreed, though, to allow Duke Energy and the Catawba River Water Supply Project to intervene in the case.

The case involves a complaint from South Carolina about the water flowing into the state from the Catawba River. Under an agreement with its northern neighbor, South Carolina is supposed to receive a flow of 1,110 cubic feet per second, or about 711 million gallons per day.

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster called the opinion regarding Charlotte a positive one.

"Today's decision by the Supreme Court is positive progress in South Carolina's fight to protect the future of our water supply, economic prosperity, and quality of life," McMaster said.

"The city of Charlotte is the largest water consumer along the Catawba River basin and in North Carolina. Their dismissal removes a major legal and political obstacle and will now allow South Carolina's case to move toward resolution before the court," he said.

The Catawba River winds 225 miles through the Carolinas and provides drinking water to more than 1 million people - including Charlotte - and electricity to more than twice as many.

Because of drought and other issues, the Catawba River's flow has fallen in recent years.

South Carolina filed suit against North Carolina. All lawsuits between states go automatically to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wednesday's 5-4 decision doesn't decide the underlying water dispute. Rather, it allows Duke Energy and the Catawba water project to intervene as parties, effectively giving them a seat at the table in legal arguments. With the decision, Charlotte was turned away.

South Carolina had argued that none of the three entities should have been given intervention status.

In the decision, the court held that Duke Energy has standing to intervene because it has unique and compelling interests. Duke Energy operates 11 dams and reservoirs in both states, and any ultimate U.S. Supreme Court decision will affect Duke's operations.

It said the same of the Catawba River project, which supplies water to North Carolina's Union County and South Carolina's Lancaster County. Because the water authority is almost evenly divided between the two states, it could not properly be represented by either North Carolina or South Carolina, the Court held.

Charlotte, though, was denied the chance to intervene.

Charlotte's interests should be adequately represented by North Carolina, the court ruled.

No date has been set for a hearing before the high court.

Meanwhile, a bitter fight in North Carolina over water from the Catawba River ended Tuesday night as Concord and Kannapolis agreed to remove less water during droughts and voted to stop their legal appeals.

The cities' search for new water sources erupted during 2006, soon after a four-year drought had wrung the Charlotte region dry.

They asked for state permission to pipe water from the Catawba into their water-poor Rocky River basin. Catawba River communities in both Carolinas hotly protested, saying the move would rob them of water needed for their own growth.

A state environmental panel allowed the cities in 2007 to pull up to 10 million gallons a day from the Catawba and the neighboring Yadkin River. A coalition of 18 Catawba communities and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation filed an appeal in state court.

Tuesday night, elected officials on both sides of the conflict - including Concord, Kannapolis and Hickory - agreed to stop the fighting. Elected officials in other Catawba communities also were expected to agree to end the court case.

Concord and Kannapolis agreed to limit their withdrawals during drought. Depending upon the severity of the dry spell, they will take 6 million to 9 million gallons a day.

Charlotte Observer writers Bruce Henderson and Meghan Cooke contributed.

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