River tourism in Great Falls

Serenity envelops the Catawba River just outside Great Falls, where red-shouldered hawks surf the thermals in search of bass, catfish and prehistoric-looking gar in a 450-acre reservoir.
Things will get much livelier just downriver, however, when this stretch of the Catawba River is reborn with two whitewater runs and enhanced recreational opportunities including kayaking, fishing and hunting. Recreational tourism and development will provide a dramatic boost to Great Falls, a community hard hit by the decline of the textile industry it once relied on.
It was here, more than 100 years ago, that the Great Falls Dearborn Hydroelectric Plant’s two dams were created across separate reaches (uninterrupted stretches) of the river to form the reservoir. As part of Duke Energy’s license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to manage the river, the company will return water into these now dry reaches.
“If you came out here 200 years ago when the river was down, it’d likely look exactly as it is today,” said Tim Huffman, Duke Energy’s senior project manager charged with implementing the FERC agreement.
“The reservoir now has very limited access. When the elements of the Catawba River agreement are put in place, not only will access be improved, the two dried out reaches will have their flows restored for recreational access as well as biological and habitat enhancement.”
Duke Energy is working with S2O Design, designer of Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center, and HDR Engineering to create two bypass channels for boater access and year-round navigation. S2O specializes in whitewater design and is led by three-time Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley. HDR provides engineering support to Duke Energy.
The long bypass, about 1.5 miles, will gradually dissipate the released water’s energy using switchbacks and deliver a challenging series of rapids with smaller, predictable waves.
Farther south, the short bypass will have a larger drop and a significantly faster flow of water, creating a higher class of whitewater rapids. Each bypass will use notches and gates to regulate the water flow. Three boat put-ins are also part of the plan, dramatically increasing paddler access.
Great Falls has been interested in nature-based tourism for years. The town was receptive to whitewater development, said Glinda Coleman, executive director of the Great Falls Home Town Association, a nonprofit organization with the mission of revitalizing the area through economic and community development.
“We saw this as an excellent way to jump-start what we wanted to do,” Coleman said. “The most recent concept designs have just blown us away. We were not completely aware that channels, especially the long bypass channel, will be able to have recreation all year.… This opens up opportunities for us.”
As part of the relicensing agreement, Duke Energy will work with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to develop a state park on Dearborn Island, contributing $1 million to the project. Duke Energy will build a pedestrian bridge to the island from the canoe and kayak launch and develop a trail to the bridge and trails on the island.
On the 650-acre island, created when the Great Falls dam was built, are ruins from the 19th-century Mount Dearborn Armory and Arsenal, a federal facility.
Project design plans are subject to review from local and federal agencies and will need permitting and environmental review.
“After incorporating design input and feedback from the various agencies, we’ll put the construction out for bids late 2019, and possibly begin construction in the first half of 2020,” Huffman said.
“After working on this for years, we can now pinpoint when we are going to have something here,” said Coleman. “We’re having conversations with people who want to open businesses and bring services here. We’re excited about opportunities for people to enjoy the beauty of the area.”

By Michael J. Solender, reported from the Duke Energy Illumination