Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — After weeks of wrangling, state legislators in mid-July approved a scaled-down version of Gov. Mike Easley’s drought response plan that broadens executive authority over local water systems but stops short of letting local governments regulate private well owners.
The final version, passed July 18 by the General Assembly and sent to Easley for his signature, still doesn’t sit well with opponents, who say the bill goes too far in expanding the state’s authority and will lead to more restrictions.
“We’ve started down the slippery slope of regulating private wells,” said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, shortly after the House voted, 68-36, to approve the bill. “They are going to continue to study the regulation of private wells, surface water, groundwater, and water supply. There are going to be more and more regulations coming.”
Supporters said the drought measures, including the governor’s expanded power, are necessary to combat future water shortages. “If we have a statewide emergency, we need to give authority to more than just the local government … it makes sense to have that enforcement ability,” said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange.
Lobbyists for farm and groundwater associations took particular umbrage to a section of the bill that would have let local governments regulate private wells. Sponsors removed the teeth of the provision by substituting language that directs the Environmental Review Commission to study the issue only.
The change didn’t go far enough for some lawmakers. “There is still a lot that we simply don’t know,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican.
“The bill has changed so many times, there have been so many amendments that were put in and then taken out, and we can’t get a clear and definite statement on private wells,” he said. “The concern is that the camel’s nose is getting under the tent in some shape, form or fashion.”
During debate before the Senate passed the bill, 36-9, Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, tried to assure legislators that private wells would not be regulated. “This bill does not make any changes in whatever the current lay may be about groundwater supplies or private wells,” he said.
The new regulations streamline the drought management process by boosting the governor’s executive authority and requiring local water systems to submit water conservation plans to the state government. Large water users are obligated to register with the state and report their usage. Municipal violators 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.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, proposed an amendment that would have “sunsetted” the governor’s power by March 2009. Lewis had concerns about the bill’s provision that allows the state to hook into a private water source during a drought emergency and remove water for another area experiencing a shortage.
“It’s kind of like asking a farmer who has grown crops to give up his crops by force so that others can eat,” he said.
The amendment failed, 44-67, after Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson, a cosponsor of the drought legislation, strongly opposed the proposed change during debate on the House floor.
“[This] completely defeats the whole purpose of the exercise we’ve been going through for the last year,” Gibson said.
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.
Lawmakers haggled particularly over one provision of the bill that requires local water systems to craft drought response plans. Earlier language laid out specific water-use reductions in times of extreme or exceptional drought, but the enacted version is more vague and requires only tiered levels of water conservation.
In the event of a drought emergency, the state government can force local water systems to go to the next tier of restrictions if doing so would minimize the drought’s impact on “public health, safety, and the environment.”
Easley’s original drought response plan, announced at a press conference in March, contained a number of divisive elements that legislators removed or revised before giving their stamp of approval. The groundwater regulations were especially controversial, and prompted an amendment clarifying that no part of the bill could be construed to allow the government to tamper with private wells.
“Luckily, we had enough folks stand up this time to oppose the bill as it was written,” Gillespie said.
Opponents maintain that the restrictions fail to address drought in a way that respects private property rights.
“In the end, local government did a fine job of managing their water supplies through the last drought,” said Chad Adams, director of the Center for Local Innovation. “A better solution would have been to recognize the simple concept of supply and demand. Conservation can be controlled by price much more simply than burdensome and complicated regulations. If water prices go up, usage goes down.”
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.”
Other lawmakers pointed out that the bill does not address increasing water supply through creating new reservoirs or expanding existing sources. Dollar said that the General Assembly should focus on the supply angle when it convenes next year.
“When we come back in 2009 and we fix some of the problems that we’re going to create by passing this bill, we will [need] to focus on water supply in North Carolina and finding ways to increase that without over-regulating private wells and getting into people’s lives,” he said.
Gibson said there are some “fuzzy things” in the drought bill to encourage water supply, but it does not address the issue directly. “I don’t believe this bill is the avenue to address water allocation and water supply,” he said, adding that legislators would take a look at the issue in the future.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.