New state water powers win vote

The N.C. House tentatively approved legislation Monday night that gives state officials authority to mandate water restrictions across the state during a drought.

The 84 to 27 vote followed an unsuccessful effort to add a requirement for separate water meters for new, in-ground sprinkler systems.

The bill gives muscle to state leaders who, during days of wilting plant life and dry lake bottoms last year, could do little more than politely ask communities to cut back on their water use. Rainfall has eased the drought, but it lingers statewide.

The House must vote again on the bill today before it can go to the Senate.

State officials could not impose specific rules under the legislation, such as a ban on car washing. They can say when to cut back, but not how.

The state would order communities to impose their own drought conservation plans, such as bans on lawn watering imposed in many counties last year. Those plans would be written in advance and must be approved by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. That local control over the specifics won the support of municipalities, who joined farm and environmental groups in supporting the bill.

If the localities' initial conservation plans don't save enough water, the state can order them to ratchet up to a more severe level of restrictions.

House members Monday evening voted to eliminate a requirement in the bill for a separate meter on new, in-ground sprinkler systems.

Supporters of a separate meter, such as the Sierra Club, said the mandate would enable local governments to monitor water use and, if necessary, shut off a sprinkler system without interrupting the water supply to the house.

“It does nothing to conserve water. It increases the cost of housing,” said Rep. Ric Killian, a Charlotte Republican who wrote the amendment to cut the meter requirement.

Environmental groups lost out, again, when lawmakers also approved adding two private groups, the N.C. Groundwater Association, which represents well diggers, and the N.C. Farm Bureau, to a list of government agencies and public organizations that make up the Drought Management Advisory Council.