Damming the Catawba

The largest and most impactful water in the greater Charlotte area is without a doubt, the Catawba River. The above map shows where the river flows. Before Charlotte, or any of the other cities on that map were there, the river was the lifeblood of the Catawba nation. They settled along the river- gave the river their name as they were one with the river.

In 1904 the Southern Power Company (now Duke Energy) dammed the Catawba river to form Lake Wylie- it’s just south of the city along the NC/SC border. In 1959 work was started on the Cowans Ford Dam, to dam the upper part of the Catawba to make a sprawling lake just north of Charlotte- Lake Norman. The goal of these dams and their lakes was to power the surrounding cities with hydroelectric power- and later nuclear power. NC has four nuclear power plants and two of them are in the Charlotte metro area, one at each lake. The entire city of Charlotte lies within 50 miles of two nuclear power plants. And lots of the city lie within 10 miles.

When the dams were built the area immediately surrounding the lakes were very rural. With the new man-made lakes, came the people. Lake Norman is a very popular tourist destination and is home to the highest house prices in the Charlotte area- Dale Earnhardt, Michael Jordan, and DaBaby all have houses on or near Lake Norman. If it weren’t for Lake Norman, the areas north of the city would not be as developed as they are now- or it would have taken decades for these areas to be developed. It’s interesting to think about how the creation of these lakes have affected reduced inequality and education (because schools here are funded mainly on property taxes).

Both lakes are used recreationally. Boats and marinas are abound, there are city and state parks along the shores, during holiday weekends there are more people on the lake than off of it. With both lakes being so close to the city, and Charlotte not having a river running through it, or on the banks of a lake, like some other cities are, Lake Norman and Lake Wylie definitely act as the default water/ camping/ recreation space for the city’s residents.

There is a major interstate that runs through part of Lake Norman. It looks like the plans for the interstate were made during the years the dam was being created and that section of the interstate was built in the early ’70’s, about 7 years after the creation of Lake Norman.

The creation of the dams and lakes obviously helps lesson the area’s dependence on coal and other “dirty” fuel sources however Duke Energy owns the lake, the dam, a lot of the area surrounding the lake, both nuclear stations, they obviously own the utility itself, but they also own 16 odd coal power plants and dozens of unlined coal ash bins. There are 50 million tons of coal ash piled along the banks of the Catawba River, Lake Norman, and Lake Wylie.

Invasive species are also a problem in the lakes, the hydrilla plant especially is known as the “killer of eagles”. At one point they introduced a non-native fish to eat all the hydrilla- I think the fish were sterile, but they were super expensive fish.

The lakes also supply drinking water to Charlotte and the surrounding communities.
“Catawba River: Once Wild.” American Rivers, https://www.americanrivers.org/river/catawba-river/. 5/27/2021
First picture citation and link: https://www.americanrivers.org/river/catawba-river/

Marshall Steam Station discharge into Lake Norman
10 mile radius of nuclear power plants.
Map of Lake Norman

Lake Norman waterfront homes
“Lake Norman Waterfront Homes”. Explore Davidson Homes, https://www.exploredavidsonhomes.com/lake-norman-waterfront-homes/. 5/27/2021
https://www.exploredavidsonhomes.com/lake-norman-waterfront-homes/

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