50-year Charlotte-area water plan calls for conservation, predicts rate hikes

New management strategies can safely stretch the water supply from the Catawba River into the next century, says a plan released last week that’s already drawn critics.

The group of water managers who spent four years crafting the plan started with options that included seeding clouds to induce rain and covering the Catawba’s 11 lakes to slow evaporation.

Their final recommendations are far less exotic. They include conserving water, lowering intakes to draw water when lake levels fall and holding more water in the largest lakes.

Consumers will be pushed to use less water, and rates will likely go up. Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins says the plan requires too little sacrifice from Duke Energy, which uses almost as much water as the public.

The Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group, which is 18 public water utilities and Duke, released the 50-year master plan for the Catawba. The basin stretches from Morganton in the North Carolina foothills to Camden, S.C., and supplies water to nearly 2 million people.

The plan updates a 2006 computer model that forecast potential water shortages by mid-century and was sandwiched between two record droughts.

The new strategy pushes that “failure” date out by another 40 years, to about 2105. That’s despite factoring in a growing population, new power plants and a warming climate that’s expected to increase water evaporation.

State law requires that water supply models be developed for each North Carolina river basin. The state Environmental Management Commission will be asked to approve the Catawba model in September.

“That’s just part of good overall planning, so you can spot where people are and where they’re going,” said Tom Fransen, the state Division of Water Resources’ water planning chief. “It’s just part of good stewardship of the resource.”

Residential use dropping

Residential water use in the Catawba basin has dropped 25 percent per capita since 2006 as conservation measures and rate hikes took hold. The new plan envisions usage dropping by another 18 percent over the next half-century.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities expects water use will drop an additional 20 percent in the next 40 years, likely through a combination of higher rates and incentives.

“Our plan is going to be to take (the plan) around the basin and try to get it in front of elected bodies and water districts and hopefully get their support,” said CMUD director Barry Gullet, who chairs the water group. “The planning process is more important than the report – this is a snapshot.”

Vicki Taylor, executive coordinator of the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition, credited years of negotiations over Duke’s Catawba hydro license with setting the stage for the plan.

“What I love about this plan is that it’s there at all,” she said. “This could not have happened 10 years ago.”

But Taylor said the plan lacks deep analysis of innovative water-saving options, both for Duke’s power plants and for consumers.

“We need to see what the trade-offs are,” Taylor said. “I bet you’d be looking at water rates and electric rates going up if we do it right.”

Wanting more from Duke

Gullet says the water group wanted to avoid repeating the exhaustive negotiations over Duke’s hydro license. That process involved 160 representatives of more than 80 groups.

The result, says Riverkeeper Perkins, who was not part of a 19-member advisory panel for the plan, was that too few public voices were heard as it was being developed.

Perkins, like Taylor, said he’s alarmed that the modeling projections deem lake levels acceptable until they fall within inches of submerged water intakes. That suggests that lakes could stay at low levels for long periods during severe drought, he said, hurting recreation and other economic interests.

Because power plants use almost as much of the Catawba’s water as public water suppliers, Perkins said, Duke should also share more in conservation efforts.

Electric utilities suck up massive amounts of water to cool power plants. Most of it goes back to the lakes or rivers it was drawn from, but about 76 million gallons a day of Catawba water evaporates from Duke’s plants.

“To me, the slap in the face is no due diligence on technologies that would reduce Duke’s evaporative loss,” Perkins said. “When you’re talking about cloud seeding and putting a tarp over the lake, you at least ought to look at what other technologies are out there.”

Gullet said Perkins is exaggerating the Duke argument. “We think they got it wrong, especially on power plants,” he said.

Under the new plan, Duke would be the first to reduce its water usage during droughts by shutting down its hydroelectric plants, said Lisa Hoffmann, a spokesperson for Duke. Hydropower accounts for 2 percent of Duke’s electric generation in the western Carolinas.

Duke is also moving to natural gas-fueled power plants, which use less water than its coal plants.

A larger issue is how power plants use cooling water.

Closed-loop cooling systems withdraw less water than the once-through systems, the type found at most of Duke’s plants on the Catawba. But closed loops lose more water to evaporation.

The EPA is revisiting the issue because small fish are sucked up with cooling water. If less water is withdrawn, fewer fish die.

Duke’s overall water consumption would go up 19 percent if the EPA makes the utility install closed-loop cooling systems at its local McGuire, Marshall and Allen plants, Hoffmann said. The Catawba water plan assumes those retrofits would be required only at McGuire, decades from now.