A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_167635" align="alignright" width="300"] Catawba Riverkeeper Executive Director John Searby.[/caption] Surrounded by two or three thousand people, John Searby sipped a Legion Juicy Jay IPA brewed with water sourced from

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_167635" align="alignright" width="300"] Catawba Riverkeeper Executive Director John Searby.[/caption] Surrounded by two or three thousand people, John Searby sipped a Legion Juicy Jay IPA brewed with water sourced from

A Voice for the River

Catawba Riverkeeper Executive Director John Searby. Photography courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

Surrounded by two or three thousand people, John Searby sipped a Legion Juicy Jay IPA brewed with water sourced from the Catawba-Wateree River Basin. In a town with a population of only 1,800, the size of the crowd was an accomplishment in and of itself, but the ribbon-cutting at the River Room — the Catawba Riverkeeper’s new elevated taproom and office space in McAdenville — also marked the culmination of two years of planning and hard work. When the day was over, Searby, the organization’s executive director, stood in the new space with tears in his eyes and thanked his team for the effort they had put in to get to this point.

When Searby joined Catawba Riverkeeper in 2019, he didn’t understand why an organization devoted to preserving, protecting, and restoring the waters of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin had its offices in Uptown Charlotte, he says, “in a concrete jungle, nowhere near the river.”

John Searby paddles the peaceful waters of the South Fork of the Catawba River. Photography courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

He began looking for a place closer to the water, but he also began to think about new revenue sources for the nonprofit. Coming from a marketing background, he didn’t see why the fundraising process in a nonprofit couldn’t be approached like a for-profit business model. He also wanted the organization to have more engagement with the community. A taproom would provide opportunities for both.

Today, in the River Room’s education room, an artistic representation of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin — carved from metal and mounted onto reclaimed wood — depicts the Catawba-Wateree’s path. From its headwaters outside of Black Mountain, the river flows east, then turns south and widens into Lake Norman, then narrows again as it flows past Charlotte into South Carolina, where it eventually becomes the Wateree River.

Along its 225-mile path, this important waterway winds through wooded countryside and urban areas alike and provides drinking water and power generation for approximately three million people, plus recreation opportunities — via lakes, parks, and paddling accesses — to millions of residents and visitors each year, including Searby. “Anytime I’m paddling, I’m communing with nature,” he says. “You don’t have to go very far, and everything becomes quiet and serene. When I get on one of the free-flowing sections of river between our lakes, I always feel a sense of calm and peace.”

Now, through kayak rentals, eco-tours, and educational programs, the organization helps others have similar experiences on the water. The organization knows that the more interaction people have with the river, the more they’ll be engaged with its protection. “What we found, as we’ve leaned into this recreational side of our operation, is that when people do fun and interesting things on the water, all of a sudden they get more engaged,” Searby says. “And that gives us the chance to talk more in detail to them and help them get involved in talking to their state legislators and their county commissioners.” That engagement has also been reflected in the organization’s membership base, which has grown nearly five-fold since 2018. The organization was founded in 1997.

With the money that it raises from memberships, retail operations, and corporate partnerships, the organization funds actions in four priority areas: stormwater; permitted pollution; swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters; and restoration.

On the South Fork of the Catawba in Cramerton, paddlers can find shade beneath a bridge. Photography courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

Stormwater creates the largest source of pollution to the Catawba River, Searby says. When water runs off of impervious surfaces like parking lots and rooftops, it picks up pollutants like oil, brake dust, and pet waste. The runoff then flows into stormwater drains, which rapidly drain directly into creeks and rivers without being treated or filtered. Two inches of water on a one-acre parking lot holds about the same amount of water as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, Searby says, and as rainfalls become heavier with worsening climate change, all of that gushing water erodes the banks of the Catawba and other rivers and creeks. The Riverkeeper works to improve stormwater management guidelines and regulations, like requiring parking lots to be pervious, or requiring rainwater retention and detention ponds that slow the flow of stormwater into waterways.

In the permitted pollution priority area, Riverkeeper staff reviews pollution permits for industrial plants, required under the Clean Water Act, and performs tests at discharge sites. When possible, they make recommendations to the state for new technologies that can be used to reduce pollution levels. Recently, the Riverkeeper recommended a technology that would allow a company upstream of Lake James to discharge lower-temperature wastewater: Since trout need colder waters to thrive, this new technology would benefit the trout population in the area. The state agreed to require the new technology.

 Lake James is part of the Catawba River Basin. Photography courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

The Riverkeeper also supports the implementation of the Clean Water Act by promoting swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters. Under its Swim Guide program, the organization tests for bacteria at about 70 swim sites and makes that information available to the public. Last year, their results were viewed more than 70,000 times. They also communicate information to the public about which fish are safe to eat and how often.

Now, the organization’s newest priority is restoration. Their first restoration projects have involved a process called live-staking — taking cuttings of plants like willows and planting them along the shoreline. As the willows grow roots, those roots will stabilize the shoreline, protecting it from erosion. The organization is also working on some larger restoration projects that would involve the removal of two dams that were once used for textile mills but are no longer needed.

The River Room only serves up beers made by breweries that source their beers from the Catawba-Wateree River Basin. Photography courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

Searby sits at a table made from wood reclaimed from the now-closed Wilson & Moore Cotton Mills, once located just upstream of McAdenville in Spencer Mountain, and talks about how the new retail businesses are supporting these priorities: The River Room serves up beers on tap made only by breweries that source their beers from Catawba-Wateree River Basin waters. The bartenders explain what the organization does to every new person who walks in the door. Confluence, an arts and recreation center in nearby Cramerton, rents recreation equipment — in conjunction with the Cramerton Parks and Recreation Department — that gets people closer to the river, like kayaks, or bikes that can be enjoyed on waterside greenways. Art on display in the venue is made by artists who live in the river basin. The organization’s eco-tours take people on paddle excursions to the swamps of the Wateree, or to one of the basin’s lakes. And all of it helps to support the preservation of this incredibly important resource. As Searby talks, rain outside the taproom’s window falls into a stormwater retention pond just across the parking lot, before — slowly — flowing on to the river.

This story was published on Apr 20, 2023

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.