03/16/08 — Leaders reject plan for drought

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Leaders reject plan for drought

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 16, 2008 2:02 AM

With steady rains falling over much of North Carolina so far this year, several local legislators are accusing Gov. Mike Easley of being slow in presenting a proposal to deal with the state's year-long drought and future water needs.

Some also think last week's press conference was a knee-jerk attempt by the governor to change the news, while retiring state Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, believes that because this year is only the short session, Easley's efforts to leave a water legacy might be in vain.

"Where's the governor been up to until now?" asked state Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston. Smith is one of the hopefuls running to replace Easley in 2009. "We have been in a drought. Last year, we were in a terrible drought. Now we're coming out of the drought.

"I think the governor's proposal on the drought was done to switch the news from the mental health story where he was getting pummeled. If all this needed to be done, why hadn't he proposed it six or eight months ago?"

But, he added, that doesn't mean there is not work to be done.

"Clearly we have to prepare for the future," he said.

Smith, who is running for the Republican nomination for the governor's seat, and others just questioned whether the governor's way is the best.

Among Easley's proposals are ones to strengthen the state's ability to require improvements and efficiencies of the state's 600 public water systems, and to require minimum drought regulations if those implemented by localities are not deemed suitable.

"I'm not sure the state needs to get involved in micro-managing our local water systems," said state Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, who's running for Kerr's Senate seat. "And as for a new department being set up to monitor shower heads in people's homes, I don't think that's what government is supposed to do.

"The way the state government is so dysfunctional right now, I don't know that we should put these people in charge of anything else."

Instead, said state Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, it should be up to the local entities to make their own conservation decisions.

"I think we need to be cautious about giving too much power to (the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources). I think the local systems need to have a little more control," he said.

Braxton is running for re-election in November.

Pate also warned that allowing public systems to put conservation restrictions on private wells and private water systems would be a controversial decision -- though Braxton thought it's likely to be a necessary move so long as it's done on the local level.

"I think (it's a good idea), but I don't how you're going to enforce that," he said.

Where they did all find agreement, though, was on Easley's proposal to encourage people to conserve by offering incentives for the purchase of the necessary fixtures, systems and technologies.

"That's fine, but we don't need to force them," Smith said.

Rather, the legislators said, the more important issues are on the supply side.

"We need to start conserving water, but we also we need to start building more storage, and we're going to have to share," Braxton said.

And that, he added, is where the state can help -- by providing support and resources to allow localities the ability to develop their own regional partnerships to find long-term solutions.

"I think the state should encourage local water agencies within basins to work together to jointly solve the water problems they find themselves in," Pate said.

In particular, he added, he would like to see the state lend a hand in exploring and financing the tapping of resources like the PCS Phosphate mine in Aurora.

However, Kerr -- a long-time proponent of water and sewer improvements in eastern North Carolina -- noted that all of this is going to take money, and that because the short session is only intended to a look at the current budget and not as a time to discuss too many new items, little may be decided in the next 12 months.

"This is the governor's last session and we'll give him a good opportunity, but this is political. You have a lot of players in this issue," he said. "And this is a year there are a lot of political matters going back and forth, so I suspect people are going to want to go and come home so they can start campaigning.

"I just don't think we're going to do everything the governor wants."