Point of View

NC should make wise water decisions in times of plenty

June 15, 2014 

Given the abundant rainfall in the Triangle over the last several months, it is easy to forget that within the last 15 years North Carolina has experienced the state’s two most severe droughts on record.

The 2002 and 2007-08 droughts caused serious harm not only to the state’s natural resources, but also to the state’s economy, including the agricultural sector, real estate development interests and numerous other water-dependent industries.

This year, a wet spring means that most of North Carolina heads into the summer with an ample water supply, but recent experience tells us these circumstances can change quickly. Population growth and economic development continue to drive increasing water demands, such that even if rainfall patterns remain unchanged, the state will still have trouble developing new supplies rapidly enough to keep pace.

Nonetheless, recent rains offer North Carolina an opportunity to think about the management of the state’s water resources during a period of relative calm, allowing for more thoughtful decisions than might be possible in the midst of a drought. The old saying “The time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining” might reasonably be recast as “the time to fix your water management problems is when the rain is falling.”

Following the droughts of 2002 and 2007-2008, state policymakers enacted some welcome reforms, such as improving water-conservation planning, but conservation alone is not likely to be enough, and the threat of water scarcity remains a real and growing concern for many communities. There are, however, additional steps that can be taken to reduce the effects of water scarcity, including modifying policies that promote more regulatory flexibility during drought.

Toward that end, North Carolina lawmakers are considering legislation that would direct the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to study regulations that govern how water is transferred both within and across the state’s river basins. Included is a call for evaluating the conditions under which “emergency” water transfers would be appropriate, as well as how such transfers should be regulated.

Transferring water has been controversial because of the environmental effects and water-supply reductions that occur in the originating basin. As a result, “inter-basin transfers” have become subject to a relatively lengthy regulatory approval process. Transfers, however, can provide a valuable tool for limiting economic losses during drought, especially if permitted on a temporary basis. In the process, transfers can also reduce the costs and long-term environmental effects of developing new water supplies.

New water supplies usually come in the form of new reservoirs. Reservoirs impose serious environmental effects of their own through the permanent inundation of sensitive habitat and disruption of natural river flows. They are also increasingly costly to build. Transfers can reduce the collective amount of reservoir capacity needed in many regions. This is because reservoirs are designed to accommodate demand growth well into the future and to meet these larger future demands during even the worst droughts. Consequently, there is often a substantial portion of a reservoir’s capacity that is very rarely used.

Reservoirs with significant surplus capacity can be found in many regions and, through the use of transfers, this surplus can be used by communities as insurance against drought. In the Triangle, Jordan Lake has the potential to serve this function, providing a regional source of additional water during drought and reducing the pressure on each individual community to develop supplies. At the regional scale, this arrangement can lower both the costs and environmental effects of meeting the Triangle’s long-term demands.

Of course, transfers require infrastructure, and “interconnections” must be available to link water-strapped communities to surplus capacity. The rules governing transfers between communities also need to be clear and consistent. Nonetheless, the potential benefits are worth taking an expanded look at the role transfers could play.

With North Carolina’s population and water demand slated to grow substantially, water will continue to become more scarce. The state’s policies need to be adapted to this new reality if we are to manage our precious water resources in a manner that balances both environmental quality and economic vitality. The bill proposing to re-examine our approach to regulating water transfers, which is working its way through the General Assembly, is a step in the right direction.

Greg Characklis, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill, is director of the Center for Watershed Science and Management.

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