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Easley to seek power to tackle droughts

Gov. Mike Easley wants the General Assembly to give him and future governors more power to manage droughts.--at a news conference Tuesday, Easley announced a long list of requests that he will put before legislators in May to add heft to water-conservation efforts in North Carolina. Easley said his plan will help modernize an antiquated water-supply system and could shift more power to the governor's office when towns face critical water shortages.

"We have a 19th-century water system in place in the 21st century," he said. "We want to make North Carolina drought-proof."

Specifically, Easley called for:

-- Allowing the governor to order local water systems to share with neighboring communities in emergencies. The governor could also impose minimum water restrictions on a community facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

-- Forcing local water systems to develop water-shortage plans and perform regular leak detection and repairs. He also wants local systems to reward customers who conserve with lower rates. Those municipalities working hardest on conservation would be given first crack at state money for water system improvements.

-- Requiring those installing in-ground irrigation systems to have separate meters to monitor their use. Also, businesses using more than 100,000 gallons of water a day would face tougher penalties for not registering with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

-- Pursuing incentives such as tax breaks for businesses engaged in water-conservation efforts.

-- Toughening building codes to require that new structures be more water efficient.

-- Guiding local water systems in developing a tiered rating system in which modest users pay less.

-- Creating a sales tax holiday for buying water-saving devices.

Local government officials praised Easley for taking on water conservation.

"Our municipal membership needs the governor and legislature to exert leadership on these water-supply issues, and we appreciate them doing so," said S. Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities.

That said, Hankins said, city and town leaders need assurance that the state will provide whatever money is needed to enable them to modernize their water systems and beef up enforcement.

Easley said money is not an issue.

"Don't let this be about cost. We've got the money," Easley said, noting the state has about $800 million in its "rainy day" fund.

Despite recent rains, North Carolina faces a severe water shortage. Easley said the state needs 24 to 30 inches of rain to reach normal levels.

"A big part of this is attitude, mind-set," Easley said. "People will conserve, and then we get a little bit of rain and the conservation drops off. Anything that keeps this in the forefront of people's minds is very important."

Easley stressed that people must be diligent about conservation with the approach of spring, when water use increases due to gardening. The state has set up a Web site -- www.savewaternc.org -- with water-conservation tips, a water-conservation calculator and other information.

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