03/11/08 — Eastern N.C. officials talk about ways to prevent future water issues

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Eastern N.C. officials talk about ways to prevent future water issues

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 11, 2008 2:00 PM

KINSTON -- There might be a day -- perhaps soon -- in eastern North Carolina when homes are built with special underground stormwater storage tanks, tax incentives are given for purchasing low-flow appliances and fixtures, and fresh, clean drinking water is pumped from mining operations all across the region.

But while that day isn't likely to be tomorrow or even next year, it was that future that officials from North Carolina's Eastern Region discussed Monday during the first-ever regional water summit at the Global TransPark in Kinston.

Spearheaded by Wayne County commissioners and County Manager Lee Smith, the meeting was called for county and state officials to discuss such issues as water rates, water reclamation, stormwater re-use, aquifer recharging, groundwater protection and water conservation.

"There's no silver bullet that's going to solve the water issues in North Carolina. It's going to take a broad range of people coming together and working hard on this problem," said Daniel Wilson, executive director of the N.C Rural Water Association. "All too often, the first time it rains, we forget about the issue."

The goal of the summit, however, was to not let that happen, even as reservoirs in Wake and Durham counties are beginning to fill back up.

"North Carolina historically has been a pretty water-rich state," said Jean Klein of Klein Consulting, formerly of the N.C. Rural Center. "That state of being, however, is changing."

She explained that it's changing primarily because of weather and climate changes and population growth -- factors that are putting more and more strain on aging water systems that in some cases date back to the Great Depression and have been the victims of deferred maintenance.

Fortunately, she continued, eastern North Carolina is at a good starting point. Many of its counties already have countywide water and lots of those systems are already interconnected.

The future of water in eastern North Carolina will depend on regional interconnectivity.

"You can't have too many interconnections," said Nat Wilson, chief of the groundwater section of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. "Interconnections are key to getting through those times of difficulty."

Already such cooperative efforts can be seen in the Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority, which combines parts of Pitt and Lenoir Counties; the Greenville Utilities Commission, which serves municipalities in Pitt and Greene counties; and in Onslow County between the county, Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune.

The future of water in eastern Carolina also will depend on the protection and care of groundwater sources.

The reason is twofold -- most water systems east of I-95 are tapped into underground aquifers, and groundwater is the main supply source for many bodies of surface water.

"Protection of groundwater is critical," Daniel Wilson said.

That means protection from pollutants by buffering wellheads, protection from salt water encroachment through the injection of water into deep wells, and protection from overuse, especially in the Black Creek and Upper Cape Fear aquifers -- both of which are in eastern Wayne County.

"There's a fixed supply in the aquifers. We don't know what it is really, but we have some estimates, and we've started to use more water from the aquifers than they can provide. But we want to make as much use of the aquifers as possible," Nat Wilson said.

Other factors influencing water in the 13-county region will be the use of new technologies.

One example is Greenville's new aquifer recharging system, which, when operational in 2010, will pump all its excess treated water back underground for storage.

Another part of the discussion are the hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh, clean water pumped out of the PCS Phosphate mine in Aurora every day into the Pamlico Sound and how that resource might be put to better use.

In the meantime, though, as municipalities and counties work to protect existing water sources and to better develop and implement new long-term technologies, there is the need to address the issue of water through increased conservation, pricing controls and the use of reclaimed water and stormwater.

In terms of conservation, that means continuing such practices as installing low-flow fixtures, repairing leaks, performing residential, industrial and system-wide water audits and restricting certain uses.

In terms of pricing controls, it means finding the balance between charging what people can afford, what the water is worth, what will encourage them to conserve and what will keep systems' revenues in the black.

In terms of water reclamation, it means looking at irrigation, wetland and stream augmentation, and aquifer storage and recovery.

And in terms of stormwater runoff collection, it means considering using it to wash clothes, flush toilets, wash cars, for irrigation and to replace current stormwater mitigation rules.

Most important, though, all the officials agreed, is educating the public.

"We don't want to be in a position where we don't have any water," Ms. Klein said. "I think our biggest challenge is public perception and public understanding, and that leaves you all on the line for figuring out the best way to communicate to your communities.

"We can't do it ourselves. The consuming public is going to have to do it."

"Public commitment really is at the heart of this," added Gary Hunt, director of the N.C. Division of Pollution Prevention. "This can't be something you do only during a drought."