Tar Heel Tattler - May 2006

State should sink money into water
By Edward Martin

To Bill Holman, it’s what you can’t see at Falls Lake that shows why North Carolina needs a billion-dollar bond issue for its water systems. The director of the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund is talking about the water supply for half a million residents of Raleigh and environs. What’s missing, at least in the lake’s upper reaches, is water.

Two years after the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center launched a project to assess water needs, much of North Carolina is locked in drought. Meteorologists categorize the Triangle’s as severe. The first three months of this year made up Raleigh’s driest first quarter on record.

When it comes to water, North Carolina is a paradox. Streams and rivers wrinkle the face of the state, lakes pock it, and an ocean brushes its cheek. But water is not evenly distributed, demand is soaring, neighboring states want to tap Tar Heel supplies, and some sources are overtaxed. With spring lawns turning brown and temperatures rising, the center has released a plan, Water 2030, calling for the bonds. Holman, whose organization was created by the General Assembly in 1996 to help local government meet water needs, says the bad news is that even $1 billion might not be enough to do what needs to be done.

Others agree. “In 1998, when we had the $800 million bond issue, we were meeting needs for the next five years,” says Billy Ray Hall, the Rural Center’s president. “But 25 years out, are we going to find ourselves in the same place three or four more times?” The center forecasts local water and sewer systems needing nearly $17 billion by 2030 to keep up with the estimated growth of 4 million people. That will push the state’s population to more than 12 million.

Getting competing interests to work for a bond issue won’t be easy. Many urban dwellers, Hall says, fail to recognize the need. “The driver for the growth in demand is people.” Though the decline of the textile industry has eased industrial demand for water, drug and biotech operations’ requirements are growing.

The Water 2030 plan urges the General Assembly to authorize the bond issue this session. Last year, the legislature established the State Water Infrastructure Commission to plan for what is needed and how to pay for it. Some project members, however, have griped that Gov. Mike Easley has been slow getting it going. A spokesman for the governor says no chairman has been named or meetings scheduled.