Statewide water rules on table

Lawmakers face a bill to set conservation measures for the state on their first day back

Staff WriterMay 19, 2008 

  • The state Environmental Review Commission, a committee of the General Assembly, is scheduled to review draft legislation today aimed at strengthening North Carolina's water-use regulations. The proposed law includes:

    * Minimum state water conservation requirements that would kick in when municipal water supplies drop below a certain level during drought.

    * Uniform water conservation rules for consumers.

    * Lowering the threshold reporting requirement for farmers from 1 million gallons a day to 100,000 gallons a day.

— Fresh off the worst recorded drought in state history, lawmakers get a look today at a package of proposals to strengthen North Carolina's water-use rules.

Gov. Mike Easley's office and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources have drafted a bill that would set minimum state water conservation requirements during droughts.

Under the proposed legislation, if municipal water supplies drop below a certain level, these minimum standards would kick in, intensifying as drinking water reserves continued to dwindle. Cities could do more to save water in dry times, but not less.

And the law would give more consumers a common set of water rules instead of the current hodgepodge of limits that vary from town to town. The ultimate goal: a shared language of water conservation, with categories of restrictions that mean the same in Asheville or Goldsboro as they do in the Triangle.

"The earlier you start into fairly moderate conservation measures, the better off you are," said Robin Smith, DENR's assistant secretary for environment. "What we saw [during the drought] was that some communities waited too long to go to moderate conservation. We need to keep an eye on the regional picture. There may be a need to share water."

The proposal also would require farmers to register their water use if it exceeds 100,000 gallons a day, down from a current reporting threshold of 1 million gallons a day for agricultural uses.

The aim, proponents say, is to give state and local water users better information about who's using water, and how much -- but not to limit its use.

"It's about getting information, so that we can better anticipate water needs and avoid further crises," Smith said.

But farm groups oppose it.

"Mandatory reporting at that threshold concerns us," said Paul Sherman, a manager at the N.C. Farm Bureau. "Our water use is very seasonal and not predictable. But we recognize that they need data to make their decisions, and we're willing to work with them."

John Morris, director of DENR's Division of Water Resources, said he understands farmers' concerns about the additional burden of keeping and reporting water-use records.

"As we grow and pressure increases on our water resources, it's good for everybody if we have fairly complete water-use data," he said. "The General Assembly will have to listen to all sides and try to do what's best."

Goal: Greater efficiency

The proposed legislation also would require local governments and big community water systems to promote greater water efficiency, including installing separate meters for irrigation systems at new homes.

And during droughts, it would allow household use of dirty "gray water" from sinks, bathtubs and showers to hand-water trees, shrubs and inedible plants, which state law now forbids.

"It seems like a good common-sense way to do it," Morris said.

The state Environmental Review Commission, a committee of the General Assembly, is scheduled to take up the proposals today.

"This is a pretty incremental package," Smith said. "It addresses specific issues that came up last year. We're looking at ways in the short term to better manage our water resources."

Because of North Carolina's rapid growth in recent decades, droughts that in years past would have hurt mostly agriculture could now threaten everyday life for almost everyone, Smith said.

"It's important to start making some changes," she said. "We need to look at growth and meeting future water needs."

A formal state study commission is taking a longer, deeper look at water policies and growth. Its Water Allocation Study report is due to the legislature next year, when more sweeping legislative proposals are expected.

"Given our growth and the drought, water's really on the top of the list," Morris said.

Georgia's approach

North Carolina isn't the only state grappling with water policy.

The legislature in neighboring Georgia, where a record drought lingers, early this year established its first statewide water plan. Before adjourning last month, it also created a new state agency to build and expand water supply reservoirs -- something North Carolina hasn't done.

Georgia's legislature also took the controversial step of shifting the state's border a mile north to tap into the mighty Tennessee River to help supply drinking water to thirsty Atlanta -- a move Tennessee vows to fight.

Peach State lawmakers also barred local governments from enacting more stringent water regulations than the state standard unless the state approves them -- opposite from the direction North Carolina is headed.

And Georgia decided to regulate water use by metropolitan region, instead of by river basin, as North Carolina does.

Morris said he thinks North Carolina's framework is better.

"Ours is more reality-based," he said. "It's more practical and more focused on the long-term sustainability of water use. We've got a gigantic experiment going on between us to see which approach works better."

matthew.eisley@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4538

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