Leaders could explore area water plan
by Anna Oakes and Kellen Short
For months, members of the town of Boone Water Use Committee have expressed concerns about what could become a trend of regionalization of water systems across the state. The General Assembly earlier this year enacted a law that would transfer control of the city of Asheville's water system to a district authority. Other bills related to regionalization of water and utility systems were filed, but not approved.
Watauga County Commission Vice Chairman David Blust said he would be surprised if the legislature doesn't take up the issue next year.
"They're hearing from a lot of towns ... it's coming, no question about it," said Blust, whose brother, John Blust, is a state representative for Guilford County. "There's so much more than just us that's discussing water."
Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson said Thursday he has spoken with a couple of Watauga County commissioners about the issue "once or twice" -- "nothing more than a few brief comments here and there."
"Yes, it's something that I am probably thinking of and does sound like a good idea," said Jordan, a Republican in his second term as the representative for District 93, which includes Ashe and Watauga counties. "I don't have enough information at this time."
When asked last week if he had asked state legislators to explore the regionalization issue, Watauga Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller said, "I've talked to them about it, but I haven't said, 'Hey, let's do it.' I just said it's something that could be done."
Miller has mentioned the issue to at least one Ashe County commissioner: Chairman Larry Rhodes.
"Several months ago, (Miller) called and we were talking about some other things and he mentioned then, had we ever considered it?" Rhodes said Friday. But other Ashe commissioners said they hadn't given much thought to the concept and that it hasn't been discussed by the board.
A rising trend?
The 2008 Water Allocation Study commissioned by the N.C. Environmental Review Commission encouraged regionalization of water systems where economies of scale or capacity needs require it, said Kristan Cockerill, an ASU assistant professor and member of the Boone Water Use Committee. In March, Cockerill told the committee that regionalization is a national trend.
"The fear is that if the states don't start managing water more directly, then the feds will," she said at the time.
The Water Allocation Study said North Carolina's 1971 Regional Water Supply Planning Act aimed for greater regionalization of smaller water systems, but that communities tend to pursue the solutions that meet "their individual needs at the lowest cost rather than alternatives that lower aggregate regional costs."
"There are also strong perceived political reasons for maintaining local autonomy - to preserve local control over public water as a growth-inducing service and to preserve local control over water prices," the study said.
The city of Asheville has sued the state over House Bill 488, which transfers the ownership and operation of the city's water system to a Metropolitan Water and Sewerage District without compensation to the city.
Arguments in the case began in Raleigh Sept. 6, with the city arguing the bill in effect is a local bill and is illegal because state law prohibits local bills related to health and sanitation. (The bill did not mention Asheville specifically but appeared to target the city directly by limiting the bill's application to populations greater than 120,000 with existing metropolitan sewerage districts.)
Jordan said he did not believe the outcome of the case would affect lawmakers' ability to establish a regional water system in the High Country.
Growth and control
Issues of growth and control are central in local opinions on water resources.
In July, a majority of Boone Water Use Committee members said the town should not supply water to unzoned areas. A majority also felt the town should continue its planned 4 million-gallon-per-day water intake on the South Fork New River, even if it's reasonably possible the state could confiscate it.
Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson, who sits on the Water Use Committee along with all five Boone Town Council members, is among those who feel the water intake project should be halted if there's a threat of it being taken from the town. Clawson said the town would lose control over a $25 million investment that would be paid by Boone water customers.
"We need to have good land use planning in place for where water goes," Councilwoman Lynne Mason said. "Without good land use planning, you will have unregulated growth, and you'll end up with likely unintended consequences. You end up with sprawl, which puts stresses on infrastructure.
"It's not a matter of control; it's a matter of planning," she added. "People would not build a house without a plan -- we can't expect to grow communities without a plan."
But Republican county commissioners say the Boone Town Council - all Democrats - inhibits local development through its water allocations. The town has rationed water since 2005 following a study that found Boone's water usage was approaching maximum capacity. In 2006, usage exceeded 80 percent of capacity, but it has since declined, which officials attribute to conservation measures and the economic recession.
"The town of Boone stifles development by holding water hostage," Miller said in May, a statement Commissioner Perry Yates echoed this week. "I don't think a municipality should be able to sit and control and say who has water and who doesn't have water," Yates said.
Clawson disagreed with the characterization.
"I never have thought that was what we did," she said. "We hear (requests) on an individual basis."
Pursuing a regional water plan would present a number of challenges - not least of which is bringing local leaders to the table.
Watauga County is a headwaters area that lies in four different water basins - meaning stream flows are not as heavy here as points downstream in other counties. The need for sufficient water flow factored into Boone's selection of a site just before the Ashe County border for its planned South Fork New River intake. Also, North Carolina restricts the amounts of water that can be transferred between different river basins.
"People really have to understand the limitations," Mason said. "We also have a limited supply."
Miller suggested a regional water system within a particular river basin.
"Are you going to have Boone control the water for the eastern half of the county all by itself ... or would you have a countywide water district or an eastern half of the county water district?" he said Sept. 4. Added Blust: "Nathan (Miller) or somebody talked about maybe doing it with Ashe County, and I liked that, because Ashe County's got more water than we've got."
Mason noted that Boone's water system already has interconnections with Blowing Rock and Appalachian State University water systems for emergency situations. She said any conversations on land use and water should reflect "the desire of the community at large, rather than any one special interest group or individual."
Billy Kennedy, one of two Democratic county commissioners, agreed that planning for future water needs should happen soon as part of a long-term plan. But he said he was skeptical of the state's actions related to Asheville's water system - "to me (that) seems like the state overreaching."
Yates said he felt a solution to water access needs to be addressed comprehensively and in partnership with the town of Boone: "I think water is our next crisis," he said.
Blust foreshadowed a struggle.
"There will be opposition," Blust said. "But water is going to be like gold - whoever has the water has the control and the power, and I just don't want that to get in the wrong hands. I'd rather that be in the elected body of the county rather than just one town."