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Drought response bill gets a rewrite

The draft bill would require local governments to set uniform minimum water conservation measures and would give the governor authority to act sooner than he can now.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley's drought response proposal has been edited to satisfy concerns of local governments and farmers, but its unclear how many of his suggestions will get passed before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

Progress was made Monday as Easley administration officials met with interest groups again to try to reach a compromise that will pass the General Assembly. Lawmakers wants to leave town next month, but Senate Bill 1879 has passed neither the House nor the Senate.

Easley has said he wants the bill enacted as soon as possible since the entire state is experiencing worse drought conditions than this time last year. The latest report from the state Drought Management Advisory Council, issued Thursday, shows all 100 counties are experiencing some level of drought conditions.

That means North Carolina must be prepared for another arid summer and fall, a top state environmental regulator said.

"I would hate to see the clock run down on this," said Robin Smith, assistant secretary in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "We need to get everybody in a stronger position to get through this year than we were in last year."

Easley asked lawmakers in March to give him more authority prepare for and fight future droughts. But the state's towns and cities were unhappy with some components that they argue would erode their controls to conserve water and allow unprepared areas to siphon away their water more easily.

The environment department rolled out an updated proposal Monday that would require a water system to reduce water use by 10 percent when a drought in its area reaches the level of "extreme" drought, the second-worst category. A 20 percent reduction would be required in the worst level, an "exceptional" drought.

Water systems that have implemented year-round mandatory water restrictions for 12 months would be exempt from the 10 percent requirement, the new draft proposal said.

The change satisfies municipalities' concerns about Easley's original plan, which would have required a community to meet minimum water conservation standards if its area was in the three worst categories of drought. Local governments said they are best able to set their own conservation methods.

"It certainly gives a lot more control over the issue ... and where we can believe we can meet that reduction," said Anita Watkins, a legislative lobbyist for the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

But how the reduction would be calculated hasn't been settled. The department's proposal would perform a previous-month comparison, but that does not take into account changing use patterns depending on the seasons. And comparison should take into account a community's population growth, Watkins said.

Amy Pickle, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, said lawmakers should give state regulators for now the discretion to set the percentage of water use reduction required. She pointed out that Easley asked citizens to reduce water use by 30 percent last fall.

"There may be circumstance that 10 or 20 percent may not be fully protective of the resources," Pickle said at the informal meeting.

Private well users also would be subject to a local government's conservation measures under the plan.

The updated proposal also requires the state environmental secretary to consult with a water system and explain in writing before declaring a water shortage emergency. The emergency powers would allow the governor to order a local government to give up some of its water to another water system when a problem arises.

The new draft also included an agreement already reached by the Easley administration and farmers in which they would provide more information about ground and surface water they use.

The state would receive information from farmers who use more than 10,000 gallons a day, compared to the current requirement of 1 million gallons. The N.C. Farm Bureau says the method to collect the data under the lower threshold would not burden their members.



Bruce Mildwurf, Reporter
Keith Baker, Photographer
Kelly Gardner, Web Editor

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