01/24/08 — Businesses want water regulation done fairly

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Businesses want water regulation done fairly

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 24, 2008 2:03 PM

RALEIGH -- For many of the nearly 100 residents attending Wednesday's state Environmental Review Commission meeting, the discussion about future water allocation featured a handful of recurring themes -- stop blaming outdoor landscaping industries, educate everyone about conservation, provide incentives for people and businesses to adopt true conservation measures, eliminate red tape currently restricting innovative solutions and encourage responsible development patterns.

Other issues included land conservation, environmental protection, private wells, inter-basin water transfers, intra-basin cooperation, statewide standards, the low cost of water, the potential for drought fees, water system efficiency and licensure for landscaping companies.

"Everyone had some interesting points, I thought," said Mount Olive Town Manager Charles Brown. "I agreed with a lot of what was said."

And, added study investigator Bill Holman of Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environment Policy Solutions, many of those issues discussed were ones they'd heard at the previous three public meetings -- though this time, there were more people speaking out.

The meetings are being held to help the ERC learn what the public wants considered and examined during its upcoming study of the allocation of water resources across the state.

"This probably is the biggest study the Environmental Review Commission has done in its 20 years of existence," said George Givens, commission counsel.

Fortunately, Holman continued, the commission is getting a good amount of input.

"We've been real pleased with the level of participation," he said. "I see a lot of support, especially for local and state efforts to be much more efficient. But there are a lot of issues out there, and the General Assembly will have to prioritize what issues it wants to focus on first."

Among them, and probably the one heard most often Wednesday night, is the feeling that outdoor industries are being punished as a result of the drought.

Business owners and workers complained that in many communities, the first restrictions are on outdoor watering and irrigation -- things their industry relies on.

And, they continued, not only have such restrictions made it difficult to remain viable, they also have made it hard to comply with other federal and state regulations such as the provisions in the federal Clean Water Act requiring vegetation to be planted and maintained during certain types of projects.

"Please give our industry the respect and consideration you give to any other industry that requires water to operate," said Tod Williams of Worthington Farms in Greenville.

They know they have a responsibility, they emphasized; they just want it shared.

"I think there is a real need to conserve water, but I also think it's important to conserve inside the house. The majority of water use is inside the house," said Daniel Currin, representing the Green Industry Council.

But, the speakers continued, to get most people -- and industries -- to make changes, there has to be some sort of incentive program, especially for those people who cannot afford to outfit their homes or businesses with low-flow appliances, toilets and fixtures. Nor, they added, can most people afford to upgrade their irrigation systems or to install cisterns and other storm-water collection systems.

Other suggestions made by the audience included the improvement of laws surrounding the use of reclaimed water (so-called gray water) for irrigation and other purposes, the possible recharging of aquifers and other underground storage methods, the use of new reservoirs and old quarries for storage, and the use of hydro-zoning in landscaping to ensure that proper vegetation is planted in the proper areas.

Other speakers emphasized the need for a collective, statewide approach.

One, Dr. Dave Moreau, director for the University of North Carolina's Water Resource Research Institute, spoke on the need for regular assessments of the state's water resources and how those are being used -- water quantity, as well as water quality reports.

He also advocated a standard definition of available supply and acceptable uses.

"As long as we're not competing with each other for a common resource, it's OK to not have a common definition, but when it come to competing and the state allocating that resource, the competition field should be leveled," he said.

However, several speakers cautioned, that's easier said than done when different municipalities get their water different ways and experience different levels of water shortages.

Some rely on their own reservoirs, some purchase from larger systems, some pull from deep wells and aquifers, some draw from rivers controlled by reservoirs and dams, and some draw from uncontrolled rivers.

All the speakers seemed to agree, though, that while each municipality may have its own approach, the state needs to take more of a lead role -- particularly in helping to clear obstacles toward innovation and in providing incentives for conservation.

Brown even suggested the state play some sort of role in water pricing in order to take some of the pressure off local elected officials to keep rates down.

But the one thing that drew the most agreement was the need for a "common sense approach."

Several people noted that North Carolina is not an arid state, and cited statistics showing that even in the current drought, it's not as bad off as others such as Georgia, and that according to a multi-year view, rainfall totals are actually running about normal.

But they also acknowledged the need for the study and for better conservation and allocation practices as the state continues to grow.

"We believe we should make the same commitment to dealing with our state water infrastructure as we do to our highway infrastructure. It's just as important an issue if not more so," said N.C. Farm Bureau spokesman Mitch Peele.

And locally, Brown said that he feels Wayne County will be ahead of the curve as this study progresses through 2008 and into 2009.

Already, the Wayne Utilities Commission -- a group of county, municipal and sanitary district officials -- is working to put together a master utilities plan for the county, and is taking a lead role in organizing efforts to begin discussing the potential sharing of regional resources.

"Wayne County is very cognizant of water conservation issues," Brown said. "I really think with what we have been discussing in Wayne County that we're on par with anyone else in the state in terms of where we are."