Ever-tighter water rules may not be enough

Only prolonged rainfall will pull the Triangle out of its drought, but communities are imposing stricter standards to stretch water supplies. Some think they should plan for the worst

Staff WritersOctober 17, 2007 

  • Since slapping water-use restrictions in place, the following Triangle jurisdictions have had a reduction in daily demand:

    RALEIGH: 54.17 million gallons a day; 18 percent reduction

    DURHAM: 27.48 million gallons a day; decrease of about 30 percent

    CARY/APEX/MORRISVILLE: About 20 million gallons a day; more than 30 percent reduction from summer peak.

    JOHNSTON COUNTY: About 9 million gallons a day; roughly an 18 percent decrease.

This week, Triangle communities have been racing to place ever more stringent water restrictions on customers. But the tough new rules are unlikely to stave off a situation that took a long time to materialize and will take a long time to go away.

"Ultimately, conservation isn't going to end the drought," notes Ryan Boyles, the state's chief climatologist. "What conservation can do is stretch the pool of water until we start getting adequate rainfall."

Dealing with the worst possible drought scenario is not something North Carolina water managers have made a high priority, said Dave Moreau, director of the N.C. Water Resources Institute.

"We have really not worked out in much detail what you would do if you really had to cut demand by 50 percent," Moreau said. "Nobody's willing to talk about it."

Raleigh has 98 days of water left in Falls Lake, assuming the region receives no rain between now and Jan. 22.

On Tuesday, the Raleigh City Council prohibited home car-washing and most outdoor watering in an effort to stretch the supply. But City Manager Russell Allen recommended that the city not institute its most severe restrictions. Those would require eliminating all outdoor watering and requiring carwashes to conserve water to stay open, measures which Mayor Charles Meeker and others have said could cost jobs.

Council member Jessie Taliaferro pressed Allen, asking him why the city doesn't feel more urgency. "We've done too little, too late throughout this crisis," Taliaferro said.

Council members asked Allen what the city would do without significant rain. He mentioned tapping additional sources of water, not conservation measures.

"No one is predicting we will not get rain," he said later.

But the chance of getting enough is not high.

Rainfall in the Triangle is between 12 and 16 inches below normal for the year. Mike Moneypenny, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh, said the region needs between 20 and 25 inches of rain during the next four months to replenish its reservoirs.

Moneypenny put the odds of that at less than 20 percent. The region has been in similarly dire circumstances as recently as 2002 but has always been saved by timely rainfall.

Boyles, the climatologist, said the Triangle normally gets 3 to 5 inches a month from December through March. But federal forecasters say the odds of that happening are plummeting.

By the end of the week, Durham, Raleigh, Johnston County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro are all expected to have adopted stricter conservation measures. Many customers appear to realize already that this solution must include more than just waiting for a deluge.

Steve Robertson, branch manager with the Tru Green landscaping office in Morrisville, said communities should do more conservation throughout the year. Lawns rarely need to be watered three days a week, he said. "You have to learn how to water properly. It all depends on your soil."

Meredith Emmett, a Durham resident who teaches part time at Duke University, said people need to stop assuming unlimited water is a right.

"Twenty percent of the world's population doesn't have clean drinking water," she said. "We don't talk about water unless there is a drought. We could be doing a lot more."

(Staff writer Peggy Lim contributed to this report.)

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4548

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