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Editorial on water plan: Better to act than react

A new state law gives state officials more authority to manage water during droughts, but it’s not the comprehensive water plan the state needs.
Overall, the new legislation gives state officials more flexibility to respond when a drought occurs by directing water systems to share with other regions (which some already do) and step up conservation. It also empowers the governor to target specific areas for emergency action, rather than having to declare a statewide emergency.
As reactive measures go, those can be good and useful, in the same way that rerouting traffic and coordinating triage can be useful after a serious accident on the freeway. But wouldn’t a water-use plan that might help stave off the need for drastic interventions be preferable?
Bill Holman of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and UNC School of Government Professor Richard Whisnant think so. They’re advising a legislative study on how the state uses and allocates water. It will be several months before they release their recommendations to the Environmental Review Commission, but in a memo (available at the Web site www.sog.unc.edu/water/) they outline some ideas that should be of interest to local as well as state officials.
Among their observations:
– Because the state has no comprehensive water plan, it lacks clear goals for using its water resources more wisely. Currently, at least six state agencies share responsibility for setting and enforcing water efficiency policy. In short, it’s a situation all but guaranteed to produce inefficiencies, confusion and bureaucratic dysfunction.
– Water systems need to revise their business model to sell water services instead of gallons of water. Currently, Holman and Whisnant note, many water systems have high fixed costs that they seek to recoup through the sale of water. This can create a conflict between the environmental imperative to conserve and the economic imperative to maximize profits.
– Municipalities and counties have little authority to regulate withdrawals of groundwater during droughts. Yet in counties such as Rowan, a majority of residents are on private wells. What safeguards could help sustain underground aquifers and other groundwater sources?
– Current statistical models of water availability are based on data that doesn’t reflect conditions related to climate change, increased groundwater withdrawals, land use changes and increased development. All of those factors will affect stream flows, groundwater levels and runoff from storms.
Recent headlines reinforce how important water planning is for our future. Local thunderstorms have provided welcome downpours in recent days, but 24 counties are in exceptional drought and 14 (including Rowan and Cabarrus) are in “extreme” drought conditions. Yadkin River levels have receded so much that Winston-Salem officials are urging residents to cut use. On another water front, Stanly County officials are pushing for reconsideration of Alcoa’s authority to run its hydroelectric dams, reap the revenues and manage Yadkin flows.
State officials must be able to respond effectively to water emergencies. But a comprehensive plan could better prepare the state to meet its future water needs and prevent some emergencies from arising in the first place.

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