Politics & Government

Water-permit bill worries major users

Industry and farming groups are already chafing at a plan before state legislators that would force large water users to apply for state permits for the first time.

The measure marks a major shift in North Carolina's policies on its most vital, but lightly regulated, resource. Abundant for centuries, water has grown increasingly precious in a turbulent decade of droughts, growing demand, water shortages and court battles.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Dan Clodfelter, a Mecklenburg Democrat, aims to head off conflicts and apply science in sharing the state's rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Because of its importance, said Rep. Lucy Allen, a Democrat from Louisburg, one of its House sponsors, "this bill deserves a good, long, hard look." She doesn't expect action on it this session because reaching broad agreement among constituents is expected to be difficult.

"We'd like to get buy-in from all those folks," she said.

Under current law, private companies may legally pump so much water that downstream users or nearby farmers' wells go dry, said a report to legislators last year. Its recommendations became the basis for the bill.

Towns sometimes don't know their water supplies are shaky until they have to turn away new development.

Critics say the measure goes too far, trampling property rights and needlessly regulating a resource that they contend is holding up well.

At stake is how, and where, the state grows. Plentiful water helps attract economic development, from farms to housing subdivisions. Water-starved places face limited options.

The bill says large users would need state permission to draw more than 100,000 gallons of water a day, even if the water runs across or under their own property. Under the state's "reasonable use" standard, most surface or groundwater withdrawals are now unlimited.

"It's a paradigm shift," said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. "This bill puts specific parameters on what 'reasonable' means."

Among the factors that would be considered: the number of people using the water; the size of the supply; its economic and social importance; and the effects of withdrawals on the public interest.

Existing water uses are presumed to be reasonable under the North Carolina bill, but critics say that's no guarantee users would continue to get all they need.

The measure also places a new burden on permit applicants to prove that their withdrawals won't hurt anyone drawing from the same water supply.

Farm Bureau leery

The N.C. Farm Bureau, which represents a half-million families, calls the bill extreme.

"We, along with a lot of landowners and owners of private wells, still believe we have the reasonable use of water that runs through our land or under our land," said Mitch Peele, the group's senior director of public policy. "This would leave it to the state to decide what's reasonable."

The Farm Bureau favors voluntary solutions, such as conservation programs and new efforts to tap and store water. "We feel like the state already has enough tools," Peele said.

Advocates say the permits would give water users legal rights they don't now have. They say data derived from permits would yield insights into how the state uses water and provide a way to enforce water allocations.

Some of the state's largest industries are wary, said Preston Howard of the Manufacturers and Chemical Industry Council of North Carolina.