‘It’s going to be great’: Whitewater project coming to SC could boost eco-tourism

GREAT FALLS, S.C. — The Catawba River in Chester County is a hidden gem. It’s rich with wildlife, history, and -- soon -- river flows that haven’t been seen in a century.

More than 100 years ago, much of the Catawba River was dammed up to provide power for textile mills. In Great Falls, that will soon change.

“What we’re doing is we’re putting water back into the original channels of the river,” Duke Energy Senior Project Manager Tim Huffman said.

He’s been working on the effort for seven years, along with an international team of experts. As part of Duke Energy’s decade-long re-licensing agreement, the company will expand recreational use of the river, which includes adding habitat for wildlife.

The new recreation site will be located south of the Fishing Creek Dam and the Highway 200 bridge, spanning from Chester County into Lancaster County.

One channel, about two miles long, will feature class two and three whitewater rapids. A shorter section will boast stronger rapids up to class four.

“It’s halfway between Charlotte and Columbia. It’s an easy drive from either one. So the economic prospects are very good,” Huffman said.

The small town of Great Falls is counting on the boost. Since the textile industry collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, the town has struggled. Its population has declined, businesses have closed and most people drive out of the area for work.

But the banks of the Catawba River are different in this town -- they’re more pristine and less developed. The town is hoping to keep it natural while inviting adventure-lovers in.

Glinda Coleman heads the Great Falls Home Town Association.

“People in Great Falls just thought that was a pipe dream, it wasn’t gonna happen,” she said about the new recreation site on the river. “I believe the economy’s gonna be much better in 10 years.”

Coleman didn’t have hard numbers but other areas that have brought in outdoor tourism have seen millions in economic benefit. One goal is to get rafting and kayak outfitters onboard to run daily trips through the site.

It’s not only whitewater either.

Duke Energy will build a pedestrian bridge that will cross the Catawba River to Dearborn Island, which is a historic military site that will become a state park. The bridge will create opportunities for biking, hiking and history buffs.

For whitewater enthusiasts -- beginners and experts alike -- the whole project is a dream come true.

David Hepp is a former director of Charlotte’s National Whitewater Center. He said the two channels will be great for first-timers learning to paddle and hardcore types, too.

“Experienced paddlers can still go there and enjoy it. There should be some decent surfing waves, and river features that can keep people entertained,” Hepp said.

He said with the Whitewater Center only about an hour away, the Great Falls site could boost interest and give people options. He doesn’t expect the two places to compete.

“It’s really two very different products. I think it’ll really compliment. It’s gonna be great in the region to have both of these facilities close by,” he said.

Duke Energy is funding the entire project. The company wouldn’t comment on the cost.

They expect the whitewater areas to be open by August of next year. It’s expected to run at least eight to nine months out of the year.