Local Politics

Easley Outlines Drought Agenda for Lawmakers

Posted March 11, 2008 8:56 a.m. EDT
Updated March 11, 2008 5:49 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Mike Easley on Tuesday unveiled a three-part legislative package to modernize North Carolina's public water systems, mandate water conservation and efficiency and upgrade the response to water emergencies.

"We want to make North Carolina drought-proof," Easley said at a morning news conference.

State funding would be available for local water systems to build connections to other systems, to upgrade meters for better monitoring of water use, to build water recycling facilities and to carry out leak-prevention programs, said Bill Ross, secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"We really have a 19th-century water system in place in the 21st century," Easley said. "We have to make changes."

Ross said businesses that use at least 100,000 gallons a day are supposed to register with DENR, but many don't. Penalties need to be enacted for noncompliance, he said.

The statewide reporting system used by local water systems and the statewide mapping system also need to be upgraded for better tracking of consumption, Ross said.

"We need to do a better job tracking water use," he said. "Unless we identify how much water is being used, we cannot take the steps we need to take to manage our supply."

To boost conservation, state law would need to be changed to prohibit discounted water rates for heavy water use and to encourage tiered rates for business and residential customers, Ross said.

"People who want to use more water should pay more to use it," he said.

Building codes should be revised to require water-saving devices both indoors and outdoors and to encourage the use of recycled water, often called "gray water," for irrigation, Ross said.

"If it's clean enough to bathe your child or wash the dishes, it should be OK to water your flowers," he said.

Dan Tingen, a Triangle developer who chairs the state Building Codes Council, said he would be open to adjusting the codes for more water conservation.

"This council has proven we will look at proposals that benefit water conservation," Tingen said. "Cost is always a consideration, but I think home builders realize, if municipalities don't have the water to service the homes they build, they're out of business anyway. So, we're going to be a team player when it comes to water conservation."

Lawmakers also will be asked to expand the governor's emergency powers to mandate water conservation measures at the local level, said Bryan Beatty, the secretary of the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. The measures could be required of any local system – including private wells within the system's market – experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, he said.

"We're going to have to be able to ... put in restrictions at the local level when we see they're in trouble," Easley said. "You don't want to wait until you're out of water."

A sales-tax holiday for purchasing water-saving devices like low-flow faucets and state tax incentives for efficiency efforts also could help with the conservation effort, Beatty said.

Ross said funding also would be requested to form an Office of Water Conservation and Efficiency within DENR to coordinate drought-response efforts.

Beatty unveiled a new Web site, SaveWaterNC.org, that features tips for businesses and homes to urge continued water conservation.

Despite recent rains that have replenished many reservoirs across the state and eased the crisis, Easley emphasized the need for continued water conservation.

The state needs an average of 24 to 30 inches of rain in the coming months to escape the drought, he said, and spring and summer months usually bring increased water usage and accelerate evaporation from lakes and rivers used for drinking water.

Falls Lake, Raleigh's primary reservoir, has gained about 5 feet in the past week, but remains almost 3 feet below normal levels, officials said Tuesday. The available drinking water in the lake should last at least through Nov. 25, based on the current demand of 38.5 million gallons a day, officials said.

Rocky Mount officials announced they plan to ease water restrictions Wednesday. Residents on the system will be allowed to water outside two evenings a week, wash their cars at home and use pressure washers.

The Orange Water and Sewer Authority said it was considering putting off plans to impose surcharges on customers to encourage conservation. The surcharges were expected to begin March 17.

"If I could sum it up in three words of what we need the public to do, it would be 'conserve, conserve and conserve,'" Easley said.