No drought on water legislation this time

Legislators sometimes ignore pressing problems until it's too late. But after devastating droughts of recent years and a broader understanding of the state's need for unpolluted surface and ground water, the 2008 legislature produced at least three significant initiatives during the short session that ended Friday:

It enacted by statute a new set of coastal stormwater runoff rules that may be more effective at preserving shellfish beds and slowing pollution of coastal waters. While the new rules are not as tough as those recommended by the Environmental Management Commission, they do enjoy broader support from local government, and thus may be better enforced. The rules require developers to use holding ponds and other devices to retard runoff to coastal area waters.

It approved emergency drought legislation that will help local and state governments deal with prolonged droughts of the sort that threatened water supplies in 2007. The bill requires local governments to develop drought conservation plans that must be approved by the state. The state would have the power to order those plans into use, but would not be able to mandate what's in them. For the first time, though, the state will have some ability to respond to local drought emergencies.

It approved a bill directing its Environmental Review Commission to study the impacts of Alcoa Power Generating, Inc.'s quest for another 50-year license to operate its hydroelectric plant on the Yadkin River. Alcoa once employed more than 1,000 workers near Badin at its aluminum smelting operation, but has largely closed its operation there and now sells the power generated at its plant. Local officials in the Yadkin basin oppose federal approval of Alcoa's license request and raise questions about water quality, water use and possible environmental problems related to aluminum production. Legislators say the water and the river belong to the public, not to any business. The commission will study, among other things, use of the Yadkin as part of “an adequate, clean future water supply for the region.”

That study is appropriate. As North Carolinians rediscovered during last year's prolonged drought, which continues in many counties, the water supply can't be taken for granted or left to chance.