Drought bill interest not rising with temperatures

The General Assembly, Gov. Mike Easley and local governments across North Carolina are learning that responding to a drought isn't as easy as turning off a spigot.

Easley asked lawmakers this spring to give governors and state officials more authority to prepare for and act to fight future droughts. He called the state's water infrastructure a 19th-century system and said he and future state executives needed more tools to plan before calamity occurred.

But since the General Assembly arrived last month, the governor's proposal hasn't gained the kind of traction that might be expected after nearly a year of exceptionally dry weather that forced hundreds of communities to restrict water use and brought dozens to near-crisis levels.

That may be because a wet early spring turned the state's thoughts away from the parched reservoirs and demands to cut back on showers and car washing of 2007. Local governments and farmers have also balked at some of the proposals.

“The legislature has been in town five weeks and still has not taken up our request on authorization to deal with this drought,” Easley said late last week in a statement. “We have a drought this year and the Legislature needs to act this year.”

But just how much lawmakers accomplish during this year's “short” session will largely depend on whether the lawmakers are able to work out details between Easley's office and lobbyists for towns and cities, particularly on the governor's request to shift more drought response powers to the executive branch.

“Something will get out of the Legislature,” said Rep. Lucy Allen, D-Franklin, a primary co-sponsor of a bill incorporating Easley's proposal. “The question is how determined the interested parties are to see that happen.”

Groups representing the Easley administration, business, farmers, local governments and environmentalists met informally for more than three hours last week to pinpoint differences of opinion.

Easley, who leaves office in January, wants to give future governors an easier way to order local governments to give up some of their water to another water system in an emergency. A governor already has broad powers when he declares a public health and safety emergency. But Easley has argued those powers don't do much toward stopping true emergencies from happening in the first place.

The state's towns and cities, which operate more than 300 water systems, want language in the bill that would require a local government to request the emergency or have the state environmental secretary to explain in writing why the water transfer is needed, said Anita Watkins, a legislative lobbyist for the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

Easley's proposal would also order a state environmental panel to create minimum water conservation measures that all local government or large community water systems would have to meet if their area is in the three worst categories of drought.

While most municipal and regional water systems in the worst areas initiated mandatory use restrictions since the drought began last summer, poor planning got some into serious trouble.

“We saw a lot of water systems that stayed at voluntary water conservation measures during an exceptional drought,” said Robin Smith, assistant secretary in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Exceptional drought is the worst category of drought, as determined by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But local governments argue they are best able to determine how to respond to water challenges, pointing out that no city ran out of water during the recent drought.

“The major problem here is the lack of flexibility and the lack of local autonomy,” Watkins said. “When you try and take a one-size-fits-all approach you're going to run into some serious … technical and political problems.”

And many cities that provide water outside their city limits won't be able to enforce the restrictions because they lack police powers to do so, said Dan McLawhorn, an associate city attorney for Raleigh, whose system covers seven other towns and four counties.

Watkins and Allen said issues unresolved this year could be addressed after the completion of an ongoing statewide study on water use and the challenges facing communities that share.

Some compromise already has been reached. The Easley administration and the N.C. Farm Bureau said last week they had agreed on a way for farmers to provide information about ground and surface water they use.

Environmental groups said getting something passed this session will lay the groundwork for the long-term questions addressed by the study.