Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — A bill that would expand state government’s control over public water systems came one step closer to becoming law Tuesday when it passed the N.C. House Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
The measure, HB 2499, passed the committee by voice vote after a half-hour debate. Lawmakers approved several amendments to the bill and discussed changes made by the sponsors, including one that removed a provision that would have allowed local governments to regulate private well owners.
The full House is expected to take up the bill today.
“Most of the things that were bad and really controversial are now out of the bill,” said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Burke County and vice chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, after the vote. “Luckily, we had enough folks stand up this time to oppose the bill as it was written. It would never have passed out of committee as it stood originally.”
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake County, said most of the objectionable elements in the bill were removed by the time the committee voted. “I anticipate that there will be amendments on the House floor to further refine the bill in order to ensure that we are not trampling on private property rights,” he said.
Dollar said the broader question is what lawmakers can do to help increase the state’s water supply. “That’s really the legislation that we need to be taking a look at. We have yet to really get serious about addressing this issue,” he said.
The bill is lawmakers’ response to a call from Gov. Mike Easley to streamline the drought management process. Supporters say the proposal is necessary to combat water shortages, but opponents say the bill would create cumbersome restrictions and drive up water costs.
Among other provisions, the bill would boost the governor’s executive powers, require local water systems to submit water conservation plans to the state government, and require large water users to register with the state and report their usage. Municipal violators would face up to $10,000 per month in fines.
Under the bill’s language, the governor could declare a “water shortage emergency” in drought-ravaged areas of the state. Officials could impose water-use rules and, if necessary, divert water from a local water system with an excess supply of water to the system experiencing the shortage. Landowners could be affected, too, since the bill allows municipalities to use private property to connect waterlines to another source without first obtaining a right-of-way.
The bill also requires large water users to register their consumption with the Environmental Management Commission no more than two months after the initiation of a daily withdrawal of 100,000 gallons per day or more. Water users who withdraw 10,000 gallons or more per day could voluntarily register with the state, and would receive preferential treatment in the event of a water shortage emergency for doing so.
Several committee members objected to sections of the bill before taking a final vote Tuesday. Rep. Curtis Blackwood, R-Union County, asked whether anything in the proposal helped local governments increase their water supply to combat shortages.
“I don’t believe this bill is the avenue to address water allocation and water supply,” said Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson, a cosponsor of the measure, in response. “There are some fuzzy things in here to encourage it, but this doesn’t address that directly.”
Rep. Cullie Tarleton, D-Ashe, said he was disappointed that nothing in the bill addressed voluntary water conservation. “That’s something we’ve got to get serious about,” he said. “I can’t quantify this, but I bet if we get serious, we could achieve savings just by promoting water conservation, and there is nothing in this bill that does that.”
The measure approved by committee members contained several modifications from previous versions. One was the removal of regulations that would have permitted local governments to regulate private well owners. Sponsors removed the teeth of the provision by substituting language that would direct the Environmental Review Commission to study the issue only.
A second change came after staff from the governor’s office met with representatives of the N.C. League of Municipalities over the league’s objection to a section of the bill requiring local governments to meet specific water-use reductions in times of extreme or exceptional drought. The compromise version replaces the mandatory reductions with a requirement that local water systems create a water shortage response plan, to be approved by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.