The Catawba River winds 225 miles through the Carolinas and provides drinking water to more than 1 million people and electricity to more than twice that many. In 2007, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster filed a lawsuit to stop a plan to allow two North Carolina cities to pump up to 10 million gallons a day from the Catawba and Yadkin river basins, both of which cross the state line with South Carolina.
The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing the case.
Appearing before the high court in October, attorneys for South Carolina challenged a decision by a special master appointed to help resolve the dispute that allowed Charlotte, Duke Energy and the Catawba River Water Supply Project into the case.
Duke, which has thousands of customers and operates 11 dams and reservoirs in both Carolinas, has argued its interests in the water aren't encompassed by either state, a contention also made by the Catawba River Water Supply Project. Charlotte, which sits perched on the border of the two states, said it should be allowed in as a major stakeholder in Duke's relicensing agreements.
South Carolina's attorneys said the water should be meted out between the states, after which third parties can hash out shares with North Carolina.
In its ruling Wednesday, the court said that Duke Energy and the water supply company have a role to play in the court battle, but that North Carolina can represent Charlotte's interests.
"Charlotte has not carried its burden of showing a sufficient interest for intervention in this action," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.
City attorney DeWitt F. "Mac" McCarley said Charlotte is disappointed to be cut out of the suit but will work with North Carolina on some issues. A spokeswoman said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper wanted McMaster to agree to let the dispute be settled by the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Committee - a river commission already appointed by both states - rather than the courts.
McMaster said he has also tried to settle the dispute, proposing in a December letter provided to The Associated Press that Cooper's office prepare a confidentiality agreement that would address those negotiations.
"A negotiated settlement is the wisest course for both states," McMaster wrote. "As you recall, South Carolina proposed this course of action before the lawsuit was filed by this State."
McMaster has not received a response from Cooper, spokesman Trey Walker said Wednesday.
Despite the decision to keep Duke and the water supply project in the case, McMaster said the decision is support for South Carolina's argument.
"The city of Charlotte is the largest water consumer along the Catawba River basin and in North Carolina," McMaster said Wednesday. "Their dismissal removes a major legal and political obstacle and will now allow South Carolina's case to move toward resolution before the court."
U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler waded in on McMaster's side, arguing last year that the third parties should be kept out because they "do not have a sufficiently distinct interest at stake to justify allowing them to interject themselves."
McMaster has said the case may impact other southeastern water disputes. Tennessee and South Carolina have worried Atlanta may look to the nearby Tennessee or Savannah rivers for relief for droughts that often plague the area. And Georgia, Alabama and Florida have fought over how much water can be stored in north Georgia lakes, keeping it from flowing to downstream states.
The case is South Carolina v. North Carolina, 22O138 ORG.