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History of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Water Quality Programs

A young Englishman named John Lawson was the earliest European explorer to venture into Mecklenburg County. In a journal entry in 1700, Lawson noted that what is now Mecklenburg County was "abounding in many and delightsome rivulets."

In the two centuries that followed, grain mills and saw mills sprang up along the banks of Mecklenburg County's 3,000 miles of creeks—churning out flour and lumber. Fisheries and ferries dotted the Catawba River. Creek water was used for drinking and bathing.

As the population grew, methods for sewage disposal did not keep pace. By the 1900's, raw sewage was routinely dumped into Mecklenburg County's creeks. By the 1950's, some industries were piping contaminated factory wastewater directly into creeks. 

A study done in 1970 found that fish had disappeared from Little Sugar Creek and many Charlotte-Mecklenburg creeks and popular swimming holes were full of toxic bacteria. A newspaper headline about the study results read "The Creek Is Simply a Sewer."

In response to public concerns about polluted streams, the Mecklenburg County Department of Environmental Protection was created in 1970. City and County funds were used to begin identifying and eliminating sources of water pollution. Two years later, the federal Clean Water Act was adopted. 

1970's newspaper article about Charlotte water pollution 

1970's newspaper article declared
Little Sugar Creek "is simply a sewer"

In 1993, the City of Charlotte obtained a federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase I storm water permit. Phase I permits are designed for cities with more than 100,000 residents. As part of the Permit, Charlotte Storm Water Services was formed. Using newly-instituted storm water fees, the City's Storm Water Services immediately began improving drainage infrastructure and eliminating sources of storm water pollution.

Creek with healthy buffers to reduce pollution
Driven by our NPDES Permit requirements, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services is committed to
improving water quality for all residents

Mecklenburg County began a fee-funded Storm Water Services program in 1994 that included services to Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville.  In 2005, Mecklenburg County and the six Towns received a Phase II NPDES Permit.  The goal is to ensure the development of an effective, countywide effort to reduce storm water pollution.

Starting in 1995, the City of Charlotte, the six Towns and Mecklenburg County adopted ordinances to protect water quality and storm water.  In 1999, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County also adopted the Surface Water Improvement & Management or "SWIM" Ordinance.  The six Towns adopted similar stream buffer ordinances over the following two years. 
Today, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services works cooperatively to protect and restore the quality of our surface water through NPDES permit requirements and water quality project implementation.

Studies show that, since the 1970s, fish have returned to Little Sugar and other local creeks. But bacteria and sediment levels in many of our creeks are still higher than state standards allow. Regular testing of our creeks, river and lakes indicate we have made progress. Yet more needs to be done to protect our community's drinking water supply and the quality of our surface water.

Today, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services works to improve the water quality in our "delightsome rivulets." SWS works to prevent water pollution, predict and offset the impact of growth on individual watersheds, educate the public and encourage public involvement. 

  Little Sugar Creek and Charlotte skyline 
As Charlotte-Mecklenburg continues to grow, new water quality challenges will be met by effectively balancing science, regulations, technology and strategy.