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Originally published: 2013-05-25 16:49:26
Last modified: 2013-05-25 16:49:24

Water a murky issue for the region

by Anna Oakes

Questions about local water supplies and control of water resources continue to swirl amid state legislative actions, comments from Boone and Watauga County officials and continued delays in Boone's water intake project.

Last week, the Boone Town Council approved a Water Use Committee recommendation to contact the town of Blowing Rock and Watauga County to verify their continued intentions to obtain water from Boone via the new water intake, as well as the financial commitments they could pay toward their water allocations.

In planning for the new 4 million-gallon-per-day water intake on the South Fork New River near Todd, Boone calculated 500,000 gallons per day for Blowing Rock and an additional 1 million gpd for unincorporated areas, public utilities director Rick Miller confirmed at the May 1 Water Use Committee meeting.

Committee member Pam Williamson suggested the town may need to reassess its water needs given that state legislation could eliminate extraterritorial jurisdictions and because it is more difficult for North Carolina towns to grow via annexation because of legislation enacted last year.

She also said she had heard -- as best as she could remember -- a radio interview in which Watauga County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller said he had support on the board to pursue a countywide water system.

When asked about the alleged remarks, Miller said a county water system would be cost-prohibitive. But Commissioner Perry Yates said last week that due diligence studies for the county's potential purchase of 199 acres off of N.C. 194 could explore water supply options.

Nonetheless, town staff indicated that scaling back the water intake project at this point wouldn't necessarily result in reduced costs for the town. And they said the town could still use the 1 million-gpd reserve even if growth does not occur outside of the town's current boundaries.

"It's a moving target. Until you need it, I can't tell you (how much you'll need)," Rick Miller said May 1. "It's an amount of water set aside so nobody ever fights us again, truth be told."

The two N.C. House bills that would have eliminated municipal ETJs in the state -- either by statute or by referendum -- failed to achieve passage before the May 16 crossover deadline, which means the proposal could be dead for now.

"I think that many people in the General Assembly understood that (ETJ) is an important planning tool for both cities and counties," said Paul Meyer, director of governmental affairs for the League of Municipalities lobbying organization.

But the measures could potentially be included in the "Regulatory Reform Act" bill, which is still alive or the budget or technical corrections bills. And any bill determined to have financial implications does not have to meet the crossover deadline.

"We really don't know at this point," Meyer said.

Another bill still alive in the legislature is Senate Bill 341, which would permit the transfer of up to 5 million gallons of surface water per day from one river basin to another with a state certificate.

Current law permits the transfer of 2 million gallons or more per day between river basins.

If approved, the bill could open up more water supply opportunities in Watauga County, which falls within four river basins. The current interbasin transfer limitation was among the reasons the Watauga River was not selected as a source for Boone's water intake, according to the environmental assessment for the project.

The legislature recently enacted a law transferring control of the City of Asheville's water system to a district authority, about which the city is suing, and legislators floated other proposals related to regionalization of water and utility systems.

The thought of building a $20 million to $25 million water intake funded by Boone citizens only to have it transferred to another entity worried Water Use Committee members. Williamson and committee member Tim Wilson said town citizens should know about changes that could affect the project, including the potential for the town's water system to be taken by a state or regional authority, before more money is spent.

Town manager Greg Young said the water intake project has faced obstacles at every step of the process, and "the longer you put a hold on things, the more you jeopardize the entire project."

The town has been planning for a new water source since 2005, and in 2008, 73 percent of Boone voters approved a $25 million bond referendum to finance a new intake. The town has secured a $20.5 million loan and $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund the project and has spent about $1 million to date in engineering and other costs, Young said.

Opponents of the project, including some residents of the Todd area and Ashe County, say the project endangers the water quality and flow of the New River, a major tourist destination. Others say the town would control too much of the region's limited water resources.

Earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency terminated an application from Boone seeking flood map updates necessary for the water intake project because the town had not provided information that Ashe County officials said they needed to sign off on an application form for impacted communities. In particular, county officials wanted to know if any part of the project, including an access road or transmission line, would cross over into Ashe County.

A map in the 2009 environmental assessment for the project showed the access road and transmission line crossing into Ashe County.

On Friday, Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell said her office has still not received additional information from Boone about the project. When asked if the town plans to resubmit its FEMA application, Young said, "town staff continues to work on the water project as instructed."

The Watauga Democrat on March 6 submitted a public records request to the town seeking the most recently updated version of the water intake project map, including the planned locations for the access road and transmission line. Town clerk Kim Brown responded March 20, stating the town could provide a map that was provided to Ashe County in early 2012,  but that specific and detailed plans regarding locations for the transmission line could not be provided because they are not public records.

She cited N.C. General Statutes 132-1, which states that public records do not include the detailed plans and drawings of public buildings and infrastructure facilities."

Other than at Water Use Committee meetings, Boone staff and officials have rarely discussed the details of the project in open session over the past couple of years. The intake has been discussed in closed session on multiple occasions.

Kellen Moore contributed reporting to this story.