Prep-Work is Underway on Great Falls Catawba Restoration (NC/SC)

Published 12/7/2021  |  American Whitewater

They call it the paperclip, a sinuous concrete channel doubling back on itself along a low diversion dam (depicted above in an engineer rendering). Sometime in 2022 water will begin running down the paperclip, and a more direct channel next to it, into the Great Falls of the Catawba River, and boats will soon follow. This once wild stretch of rapids has been dewatered for over a century, but the sounds of jackhammers and cement trucks indicate this piece of the river is on the cusp of a great recovery.

Nearly 20 years ago American Whitewater started working on new licenses for the chain of hydropower dams on the Catawba River, which spans North and South Carolina, with a special emphasis on restoring flows to the dewatered Great Falls of the Catawba. Hundreds of hours of negotiations and studies with many partners led to a settlement agreement in 2006, though the federal license was delayed until 2015 by litigation and other factors. Now, after six years of planning, Duke Energy is in the midst of a massive construction project aimed at bringing our two-decade old creative vision for this special place to life.

Once eight miles long, only the 2-mile dewatered section of the Great Falls is not buried beneath reservoirs, and this section has two channels split by a large undeveloped island. To the right of the island is the Short Channel, a 0.8-mile section of Class III big water fun. Duke Energy has ground off the top 6 feet of the dam wedged into this channel and is currently installing pneumatic gates with massive cranes to release flows into the river. They are also building a trail we helped design, and access areas. To the left of the island is the 2-mile Class II/III Long Channel, where Duke is currently laying down the foundation of the paper clip channel just downstream of the diversion dam blocking this channel, and has built a large access area. The upstream reservoir has been drained to support the work, and the scale of construction on both channels is staggering and fast paced.

In August of next year all the gates, channels, trails and access areas are slated to be done, the upstream reservoir will refill, and water will continuously flow through the Great Falls for the first time in a century. Paddlers will be able to enjoy releases of around 2800 cfs into each channel nearly every weekend, and likely enjoy the ample continuous base flows too. You’ll be able to launch in the upstream reservoir and paddle down through the paper clip or adjacent channel, possibly enjoying some nice man-made waves, into the Long Channel, or portage the dam at the Short Channel and put in for the big water fun. From there you can paddle across the bottom reservoir if you’ve set shuttle, or walk back up the portage trail for laps or egress. There is still a lot we don’t know about the fun to be had and the best way to enjoy the Great Falls. It’ll be an adventure!

Throughout 2022 we’ll be working with Duke Energy to finalize the construction projects, flow schedules, signage, trails, public outreach, and lots of other moving pieces. Thanks for your support!

By Kevin Colburn