State policy should focus on water conservation

House Speaker Joe Hackney had it right the other day when Gov. Mike Easley signed into law a bill designed to help state and local governments during droughts. It's a good first step, Speaker Hackney said, “but there's a lot of water wasted in North Carolina.”

Indeed there is, partly because until now, neither the state nor local governments had a systematic way to deal with widespread water shortages during doughts. In fact, some local governments have counterproductive policies that discourage their residential customers from saving water, including pricing policies that seem to punish water conservation and reward consumption. Many local governments have not developed water conservation plans that would help reduce water use and preserve water supplies for critical functions during droughts.

That's why the School of Government at UNC Chapel Hill and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions are working with the legislature's Environmental Review Commission to study water use. As the Observer's Bruce Henderson reported recently, researchers have concluded the state needs to improve its record in water use efficiency and drought response. “Overall, it's fair to say that we're pretty inefficient in this state when it comes to water use,” said UNC Prof. Richard Whisnant.

Prof. Whisnant and Bill Holman, director of state policy at the Nicholas Institute, point to some key lessons. They include the facts that North Carolina has no clear goal for reducing water consumption and no plan for developing new supplies of water. State building codes don't focus on water efficiency, as they do for energy use, and water restrictions are drawn up for easy enforcement, not conservation.

The new state law won't fix all these deficiencies in policy. But it will, for the first time, give the state an organized way to work with local governments. It requires every water system to have a water conservation plan and authorizes the state to require more stringent measures if the plan isn't saving enough water. It also enables the governor to declare a local water emergency and sets out a procedure to order water systems with sufficient water to share with neighboring water systems for a limited period.

Some local governments resisted ceding such authority to the state. But legislators made the right call in enabling the state to help communities in a severe drought get enough water for sanitation and public health. They recognized that while they can't make it rain, they can take steps to make water supplies last longer.