There are a couple of ways to look at water pollution in North Carolina, detailed in a report out this week: as showing a disheartening lack of improvement or evidence that conditions aren't growing worse.
About one-third of the streams, rivers and lakes the state assessed are impaired by some form of pollution, the report says. Waterways fall on and off the impaired-water list, which is updated every two years, but that overall proportion hasn't changed in recent years.
The Catawba River basin, including most of Charlotte, has 356 miles of tributary streams on the list, mostly because they're unhealthy for aquatic life. Among them are most of Mecklenburg's creeks: McAlpine, McMullen, Irwin, Sugar and Little Sugar.
The South Fork arm of Lake Wylie makes the list for excessive copper levels. So does Lake Rhodhiss, in the upper basin, for high pH. Statewide, bacteria, chemicals, sediment and polluted stormwater are most often to blame.
Worth noting are some caveats about the list. It does not include waters for which pollution-control plans have been developed -- among them Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte's water source, which landed on the 2010 list for slight acidity. A plan crafted for the same problem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be applied here, the N.C. Division of Water Quality says.
The list also isn't a snapshot of all N.C. waters. Only those where pollution is expected are assessed. Those that don't meet water quality standards or support designated uses, such as supplying drinking water, are listed as impaired.
In that light, says Susan Massengale of the water-quality division, the list shows that waters aren't degrading further despite years of rapid development. New technology has been harnessed, she says, to make the stuff that comes out of discharge pipes ever cleaner.
Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman takes a dimmer view, noting that virtually all urban streams are polluted. "We need to be smarter about new development if we want our waterways to provide for us," he says.
Have your say here. The state will take public comment on the updated list through March 12.