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Turning on the water faucet — and worrying

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 5, 2007

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Chapel Hill, NC - We’ve got plenty of water in North Carolina, so why worry so much about it?

But people are worried. They are worried even though North Carolina is more richly blessed with natural water resources than almost every other state. More folks are worried because water is at the heart of so much of what makes the good life in our state possible. If the abundant supply of pure drinking water is at risk, our good life is threatened.

Good water is one of the reasons people and businesses are moving to North Carolina in droves. Paradoxically, that growth is one of the major threats to the “good water” that is attracting new people to our state.

“The Future of Water in North Carolina: Strategies for Sustaining Clean and Abundant Water,” a recent conference sponsored by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, attracted a host of concerned policymakers and worried citizens.

In an opening address, Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue outlined some of the challenges that face our state--starting with its amazing growth. Our small Southern state has suddenly become the 10th largest state in the country. Sometime after 2030, with an additional growth of about four million people, it will be the 7th largest.

Our cities and towns will have to find a way to supply clean water to these new people and the businesses that give them jobs. Keeping water clean will be an extra challenge as the new people add wastewater to already overloaded sewage treatment facilities.

The new residential developments to house the newcomers will destroy a large swath of the natural areas that currently protect and enhance our water sources. Hard surfaces and fertilized lawns will replace those natural areas. Whenever the rains come, the additional accumulations of pollution will flow into our rivers and streams—adding to the challenges of turning our waters into something fit for us to drink.

Even the environmentalists can make for more worries. For instance, the much needed transformation of our energy fuel supply from foreign oil to domestic biofuels will lead to more intensive use of our agricultural lands for corn or other “convertible crops. Without stricter controls and smarter farming practices, this possible bonanza for our farmers could lead to dangerous amounts of fertilizer and pesticide residues pouring into our streams—and our drinking water.

At the Duke conference, the speakers dealt with the twin challenges of (1) the growing demands on the limited water supply and (2) the increasing difficulty of keeping the basic sources of water of acceptable quality.

For instance, some of the speakers asked how, with increasing demand on the limited supply of water, do we encourage people to think about using less? In a market economy, price is always a primary tool. However, they suggested that it might be impossible politically to simply raise prices for economically challenged families for which utilities bills are already too burdensome. In that case, are there other methods of pricing for water that would encourage conservation? Ideally, we would reward consumers who figure out ways to use less water. But how do we find a “simple” rate structure that could accomplish this objective?

Meanwhile, how do we meet the challenge of protecting the quality of our sources of water? Recently the state has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to small and poor communities to upgrade their sewer systems. Currently, the legislature is beginning to consider proposals by Governor Easley and others to do even more.

Lt. Governor Perdue noted with pride her role--10 years ago--in helping Senator Marc Basnight persuade the legislature to establish and fund the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. This fund, led for many years by the Duke conference organizer Bill Holman, currently allocates $100 million a year to improve and protect water quality by funding the acquisition of land and easements alongside streams and by helping communities upgrade waste water and storm water systems.

As Holman’s temporary successor at the fund, I find myself wrestling every day with all the questions raised at the Duke conference. And so should you every time you turn on your faucet expecting a glassful of drinkable water to pour out.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5:00 p.m.

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Turning on the water faucet — and worrying

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