Our Water

Protecting our water: We know what needs to be done

Lake James is known as one of the most beautiful lakes on the east coast. The sun ignites fog in the valleys near the lake in this 2007 photo and just begins to brush its waters with color.
Lake James is known as one of the most beautiful lakes on the east coast. The sun ignites fog in the valleys near the lake in this 2007 photo and just begins to brush its waters with color. Staff Photographer

Preparing for rising demand for water, future drought and climate change doesn’t demand radical new thinking.

Experts identified solutions years ago, although some have been ignored or are only slowly being implemented.

[Our Water: Read the full series]

Learn more about where our water goes. Create a system to fairly share it. Stop wasting treated water. Collaborate within watersheds and regions. Conserve and protect.

For centuries, North Carolina’s most vital resource seemed infinite. Now computer models can fix dates to the times when the lines of supply and demand may cross.

While water policies in the West assume arid conditions, shortages are a new phenomenon in the Southeast, said UNC water resources expert Greg Characklis.

“As the probability of scarcity increases, I think people will begin to see the advantage of having some orderly system,” said Characklis, director of UNC’s Center for Watershed Science and Management.

“The first step would be to do some basic accounting to figure out how much water we have and where it’s used, and we don’t even have a good sense of that.”

Sustaining our water supplies will also mean learning new habits, many of them as simple as turning off the faucet while brushing teeth. Conservation now means less reason to build new infrastructure later.

Here are steps experts say we should take to secure our water’s future:

Complete water budget plans

The problem: North Carolina lacks a water budget – detailed data on its water resources and how they are used. Local water supply plans help identify systems in trouble, but more sophisticated technology is able to envision future scenarios.

The solution: Complete river basin water models that help planners understand the impact of multiple water withdrawals or develop drought-response plans.

Legislators ordered the state environment agency to create the models after the deep drought of 2007-2008. But the complex models have been completed for only five of the 17 basins.

Even when they’re completed, some experts say the state lacks the policy framework needed to equitably share water.

“The most positive thing since (2008) is that the state has embraced science-based hydrologic models to try to identify where water scarcity is going to be an issue, like Charlotte and the Triangle,” said former environment secretary Bill Holman. “But the political will to act on that information doesn’t currently exist.”

Require withdrawal permits

The problem: The state has no system for granting legal rights to water. It instead relies on an old law that theoretically allows unlimited withdrawals by property owners.

Communities hesitate to invest in new reservoirs or treatment plants if they could lose court challenges by property owners. At least 11 North Carolina public systems are searching for new water sources or storage options.

The solution: Require permits for large water withdrawals, as most states do, conveying rights to specified amounts of water for set times. Permits are considered likely to reduce conflicts over water.

Now, disputes often end in court. The result is that individual property owners can be awarded higher rights than water systems that serve thousands.

“Our feeling was then, and we still feel today, that the time to do such a permit system was the time before we got back into a major drought,” said Richard Whisnant, a UNC School of Government professor who coauthored, with Holman, a 2008 report to legislators on water allocation.

Plan on a regional basis

The problem: Building new reservoirs is expensive, and it can take years to win environmental permits. Once built, they are often able to hold more water than is typically needed.

The solution: Connecting systems to share resources such as reservoirs is cheaper than building new ones. But three-quarters of North Carolina’s 2,100 community water systems are not connected to other systems.

Apart from installing physical pipelines between neighboring systems, experts say water systems could make more efficient use of their resources by planning together. They cite collaboration by Catawba River water utilities and Duke Energy as an example.

Some communities “probably could explore alternatives to building new supplies,” said Characklis, the UNC water resources expert. “We maintain a lot of reservoir capacity that we use very infrequently, mostly during droughts. We could find ways to meet drought in other ways, (and) I think communities are starting to do that.”

Stop wasting water

The problem: Water utilities across the state can’t account for much of their treated water because of inaccurate meters, leaky pipes and lack of data. That wastes money and resources.

Nineteen water systems couldn’t account for one-third or more of their treated water in recent reports to the state, and three lost track of two-thirds.

The solution: Water systems should conduct annual audits to uncover problems, fix them and verify the results.

Consumers “are paying for inefficiencies, theft, meter inaccuracies – it’s all borne by the ratepayer,” said Steve Cavanaugh, a Winston-Salem consultant who works with systems to reduce “non-revenue” losses.

“It was pretty hot in (the drought years of) 2007 and 2008, and we made some good progress. Then it rained and the next crisis came around. But it will come back.”

Reflect true costs in rates

The problem: Public water systems, pressured to keep rates low, often don’t bring in enough revenue to properly maintain their water lines and other infrastructure. That leaves vital components more likely to fail or to operate inefficiently. North Carolina has a $10 billion infrastructure backlog.

The solution: Set rates that reflect the true costs of treating water and running an efficient system, as a well-run business would.

“If you looked at it as a classic business depreciation plan, they would have to replace pipe over time. Almost nobody I know of is actually maintaining a system that way, so that’s an unknown issue, repair and replacement, irrespective of growth,” said UNC’s Richard Whisnant. “It’s a huge problem built around a political system that doesn’t take into account long-term maintenance.”

Keep water clean

The problem: Mercury alone pollutes 38,000 miles of North Carolina streams and nearly a quarter-million acres of lakes, tainting fish that can cause health problems in the people who eat them. Other waterways are polluted by bacteria, nutrients or metals.

Treatment plants can remove most contaminants – but at added costs that are borne by customers.

The solution: Protect water sources by preserving vegetated buffers that intercept pollutants before they reach water. Mecklenburg County protected stream-side buffer zones in the 1990s, but legislators this year prohibited local governments from setting buffers wider than state minimums.

“It’s more expensive to clean it than to keep it clean,” said Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County’s longtime water quality chief.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

What you can do

▪ Take shorter showers, and consider installing low-flow shower heads.

▪ Don’t use toilets as trash cans.

▪ Fix leaking faucets. A drip of two tablespoons a minute totals 105 gallons a week.

▪ Turn off the faucet while shaving or brushing teeth.

▪ Fix leaking toilets. Add a few drops of food coloring into the toilet tank. If color appears in the bowl, you have a leak.

▪ Run the dishwasher and washing machine only when they’re full.

▪ Outdoors, install a “smart controller” to your irrigation system to cut water use by 20 percent or more. Charlotte Water offers special irrigation rates for customers with approved controllers.

The Environmental Protection Agency offers more tips.

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