Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Think of how important the Yadkin River is to the Piedmont now for drinking water, farming, economic development and recreation. Then cast your imagination ahead only a decade or so, when North Carolina is expected to grow by more than a million people. How important will those languid waters be then?
The Yadkin is the lifeblood of Rowan County and an important artery for a broad swath of the state, extending via the Pee Dee into South Carolina. Its too important to assume that someone somewhere else will vigilantly protect this vital resource. The Yadkin needs its own independent, regionally based guardian, an idea being promoted by the non-profit advocacy group Clean Water North Carolina in the form of a Yadkin riverkeeper foundation.
The key word here is independent. Although agencies such as the N.C. Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Management Commission and the federal EPA have primary responsibilities for protecting waterways from contamination and other environmental abuses, they cant possibly monitor thousands of miles of streams for potential problems or outright violations. Those agencies have multiple responsibilities, and they have to balance competing interests. The best protection comes from on-site eyes and an on-site advocate like Rick Dove, who became the states first riverkeeper when he signed on to help clean up the Neuse River more than a decade ago. In the interim, the Neuse has gotten a lot healthier, thanks to the work of the 2,500-member Neuse River Foundation, and several other rivers, including the Catawba, now have their own riverkeepers.
Pollution is just one concern driving the riverkeeper movement, however. As weve seen from the ongoing dispute over a proposed interbasin transfer that would pipe water from the Catawba and Yadkin to Concord and Kannapolis, allocation of water resources is already a contentious issue with the potential to pit state against state, as well as municipality against municipality. During this process, the Catawba has had an energetic advocate in riverkeeper Donna Lisenby, while the Yadkin part of the transfer has received far less public discussion and scrutiny. The city of Salisburys disagreement with Alcoa over sedimentation buildup at a water intake station on the Yadkin is another instance where the river has given rise to a tangled dispute involving costly remediation, as well as the reliability of future water supplies. An independent voice offering a perspective beyond power company or municipal interests could be valuable there, too. Or consider the water-use conflicts likely to arise the next time North Carolina falls into the grip of a drought like the one that shrank municipal water supplies and provoked widespread restrictions in 1998-2002.
At an informational session at Catawba Colleges Center for the Environment, the Yadkin proposal drew an enthusiastic response. To make it a reality, however, will require financial support, as well as commitment from a cadre of volunteers. As Dove noted, since the Yadkin doesnt face an immediate crisis, some might question the need for the river to have its own watchdog. You dont have to look far into our states thirsty future to find an answer.