CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Each year, 50,000 pounds of trash are removed from the Catawba River and nearby creeks. It's a growing problem that affects everyone in the Charlotte area.
Eyewitness News anchor Blaine Tolison paddled down the Catawba River in South Carolina to see what the trash problem looks like and what can be done to fix it.
Tolison and his photographer, along with Charlotte Storm Water Services, launched kayaks from Landsford Canal State Park near Rock Hill. Channel 9’s new SkyDrone 9 flew alongside the kayaks and got a firsthand look at the trash -- lots of trash.
(WATCH: 25 tons of trash pulled from Catawba River every year)
Channel 9 saw piles of trash along the river. In one pile alone, there were bottles, shoes, a soccer ball and even a fire extinguisher. But the worst, spotted from SkyDrone 9, was a refrigerator settled high and dry on the rocks in the middle of the river.
"You just wonder how those things get down here," said Al James of the South Carolina State Park Service. He manages the Landsford Canal State Park and sees junk there nearly every day.
"The most disturbing thing I probably see is propane tanks,” he said. “That bothers me a lot."
Catawba Indian Nation is 10 miles upstream, where the tribe has lived off the Catawba River for thousands of years. The tribe’s chief, Bill Harris, described the beauty of the river to Channel 9.
(Chief Bill Harris)
“Just stop and stand on the banks of the river, close your eyes and listen to what's around you," he said.
Harris pointed out that Carolinians have depended on the Catawba River for generations. The river is used extensively for drinking water and for generating power.
"Rivers are a way of life, and if we as people do not take care of those rivers, we'll pay a hell of a price in the future," Harris said.
(Click PLAY to watch the best video from SkyDrone 9)
How does a refrigerator end up in the Catawba River, along with all the other garbage? Officials told Channel 9 that most of the trash that ends up in South Carolina comes from Charlotte.
Mark Boone of Charlotte Storm Water regularly monitors the river and creek environment and said the trash doesn’t seem to go away.
"It gets flooded away and then gets replenished, so this is a pervasive problem," he said.
Boone also told Channel 9 that illegal dumping into creeks sends garbage into the Catawba River. Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, said Cane Creek, and especially Little Sugar Creek, which runs through Charlotte, contribute the most.
"We would really like to see more enforcement of those litter laws," Perkins said.
In the last three years, North Carolina wildlife officers wrote 17 tickets for littering in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties. South Carolina officers wrote 100 tickets in York County alone during the same period.
But North Carolina wildlife officials said Mecklenburg and Gaston counties have just one officer each, and their focus is not on littering.
North Carolina Sen. Jeff Tarte doesn’t believe that more enforcement is the cure-all solution.
"It shouldn't be so much punitive, as much as people will hopefully voluntarily take care of things or at least notify people when they are," Tarte said.
The future of the Catawba River is cloudy, according to some experts, but everyone interviewed for this story hopes that people realize how damaging trash is to the environment and that they stop littering.
The Catawba River has been referred to as an “endangered river,” but Harris remains optimistic.
"One does not make an impact, but as you collectively put it together, it makes a hell of an impact,” the chief said. “Let's take it back to where it's pure, pristine beauty. I think we can do it."
Want to help?
There are annual cleanups throughout the community in creeks and local rivers, including the Catawba. Charlotte Storm Water Services will hold its annual “Big Spring Clean” on Saturday. Volunteers will clean several greenways and creeks across the Charlotte area.
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