Court of Appeals builds on lower court ruling to give stronger protections to state’s waters
The Court of Appeals today strengthened protections for the state’s lakes and rivers by confirming a lower court’s decision that the state has a duty under federal and state law to protect existing uses of surface waters. At issue was the designation of a 12-mile stretch of the Catawba River as “trout waters,” a designation that would protect the existing populations of brown and rainbow trout in the river.
The Court of Appeals decision bolsters a related Burke County Superior Court ruling that the state Environmental Management Commission erred by failing to designate the stretch of river located just outside Morganton as trout waters. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals agreed that if a water body supports an existing use such as trout, the EMC must reclassify that water body to protect that use. Finally, the court ruled that the law requires designation of waters as “trout waters” regardless of whether the trout are there because of stocking or natural reproduction.
After the victory in superior court, SELC, which filed the suit on behalf of Trout Unlimited and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, filed a petition for attorney's fees. The superior court granted the petition, finding that the EMC was not “substantially justified” in refusing to reclassify the river as trout waters. The state EMC appealed the fees award. The Court of Appeals not only affirmed the fees award, but confirmed the superior court ruling, in the process strengthening protections for surface waters statewide.
Without a designation of “trout waters” the trout populations in the Catawba River remained vulnerable to unsafe oxygen and temperature levels. This stretch of river is one of the most eastern portions of the state to support trout populations and is a popular recreational destination for fishermen from the Charlotte area.