Commissioners vote 'no' to water intake
by Jesse Campbell
The Watauga County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing Tuesday evening to hear a special presentation by Lee Spencer, a water consultant who was hired to represent Beech Mountain.
Spencer formerly worked with the state's public water supply section.
Donning red sweaters, ties and coats, opponents of the proposed intake questioned Beech Mountain's true intentions, which they say are more closely linked to commercial development interests rather than drought protection.
After hearing an hour's worth of comments against the water intake facility, commissioners voted unanimously against Beech Mountain's proposal.
Spencer said the supplemental intake would have been used as a primary source and that pumps flowing from the river would only be used to retain adequate water levels at the Buckeye Creek reservoir at Beech Mountain.
The proposed intake would have been located near the section of Guy Ford Road that crosses the Watauga River.
Spencer assured commissioners that the proposed intake would be located within the river's bank and would be "small and unobtrusive," compared to similar intakes used across the state.
The proposed line would have been buried in the shoulder of the road and would run parallel to the roadway until reaching the water treatment plant, Spencer said.
Additionally, Spencer said Beech has already exhausted other potential alternatives and officials only began exploring a supplemental line following the impact on Beech Mountain's reservoir by the 2010 drought.
"They realized they were in a dire situation," Spencer said.
Had the intake come to fruition, Spencer said the Watauga River would have needed additional classification; the river is currently rated as "better than C." This designation is better than most North Carolina rivers that are used for recreational purposes.
"This would actually be an additional layer of protection," Spencer said. "This is a relatively small amount of water that would be drawn from the river."
Watauga County landowners in opposition didn't agree with Spencer's assessments.
Karen Merchant of Bethel said she frequents the location of the proposed intake to swim, fish and kayak.
She questioned whether the parking area in the proposed location would be available due to the location of the pump house, citing federal rules.
Merchant said there is "a lack of common sense" in town officials in coming up with proposed solutions to Beech Mountain's water issues.
Merchant also questioned the reasoning in pumping even more water into a "decrepit water system" that often leaks while delivering water to residents.
Beech Mountain's Utilities Director Robert Heaton previously countered these claims of shoddy infrastructure by saying the town had spent $1.5 million to improve the current system and to stop leaks.
There was also some concern by audience members who questioned the town's most recent figures that showed a 300 percent increase in regards to water consumption and need. Previous numbers released by Beech Mountain showed the town used far less than its water capacity.
Most of the opposition's comments on the issue included fond memories of growing up along the banks of the river and what it meant to their families.
"I fished in a lot of rivers and the Watauga is up near the top of the list and is one of the best rivers in the world," David Hooper of Seven Devils said. "I feel like anything is done that (siphons) a lot of water out of the river is bad for the river and, in turn, it's like killing the goose that lays the golden egg. I think there are other options that are available. It seems like this is an opportunity for them (town of Beech Mountain) to do more development. This is giving Beech Mountain an opportunity to expand what they want to do."
Spencer said Beech Mountain was sensitive to the needs and desires of those who use the river, which was apparent to the proposed placement of the intake in the bank and not in the middle of the waterway.
He also argued that if water was to be pumped through the intake, this would result in fresher water, as it would be oxygenated throughout the process, resulting in safer water for human and animal consumption.
The outpouring of support to keep the Watauga River untapped by the town was so large that commissioners relocated the public hearing from the administration building to the large courtroom located nearby.
"We are proud of what we have," Larry Trivette said. "People don't come to Watauga to see a big siphoning of water. They come to enjoy the scenery we have. The state has not been able to keep the pavement on the road when the river overflows. Can you imagine what a structure like that would look like going down the river?"
To the commissioners, the decision to vote "no" was a clear one.
"As far as emails and phone calls I had received, not one person was supporting this," Commissioner Billy Kennedy said. "We need to take care of this jewel we have."
Commissioner John Welch cited an engineering study that estimated a 56 percent water loss due to poor infrastructure currently in place at Beech Mountain.
"I think we have a bigger issue at Beech Mountain," Welch said.
Commissioner Perry Yates also cited how a recent study from 2012 said Beech Mountain was only using 18 percent of its water supply.