Water Resources and Drought
In 2008, the NC Conservation Network worked with a coalition of environmental advocates to enact the Governor’s drought response legislation, H2499, Drought/Water Management Recommendations (SL 2008-143). This page preserves information and links from that campaign.
North Carolina needs better water policies!
Clean water is essential for life. Abundant rivers and reservoirs have been a key, if often overlooked, contributor to North Carolina’s economy and quality of life. We use surface water for energy generation, drinking, and recreation. The 2007-08 extreme drought is sending us a signal: we can’t take our water supplies for granted.
This year, many communities are worried about running out of water. As North Carolina’s population swells by an estimated 2 million people over the next 15 years, many communities will face tough choices about water use not just during droughts, but all the time. And the issue does not just pertain to surface water; groundwater levels are declining as well. Several counties in eastern North Carolina are running out of groundwater, due partly to heavy industrial use, and will need to shift to using surface water to meet their needs.
Additionally, questions about who gets to use limited water resources will be a growing problem in North Carolina. The state is already facing water allocation battles, as seen in the state’s controversial 2007 approval of an interbasin transfer of water from the Catawba River to fuel growth in the towns of Concord and Kannapolis in a neighboring river basin.
A few sensible changes now in the way we manage water can go a long way to avert human misery and economic disruption in the future.
- Require efficient use of water. North Carolina can take significant steps forward in water use efficiency. More efficient water use means existing supplies can reach further, making droughts a less serious threat. Even outside of droughts, efficient water use benefits the economy - businesses and residents can spend less on water, and local governments can spend less on expanding the capacity of water supply and treatment systems. We are urging state leaders to authorize the state Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to set standards for water use efficiency.
- Link growth decisions to water supplies. No matter how efficiently we use water, we’ll run into problems if we approve more residential and commercial water use than supplies can meet during a drought. Unfortunately, while state law requires water system operators to plan ahead, there is no link in state law between water supply availability and local government decisions to approve new development. Local governments in rapidly growing counties are continually trying to catch up with the needs created by development – for new schools, police and fire stations, and water supplies. We are urging state leaders to require that local governments ensure that water supplies during drought and public infrastructure are adequate to meet the demand that will be created by the new development before they approve new subdivisions.
- Update our water laws for the 21st century. North Carolina’s water allocation laws are an outdated patchwork. Some parts date from two centuries ago, when the main question was how much water a landowner could withdraw from a river for his personal use – not how much a city can withdraw for its entire population. Other laws are much more recent, but deal with very specific situations, like moving water from one river basin to another. The patchwork is breaking down under the stress of growth, with communities fighting for access to limited water supplies. It is time to update and overhaul North Carolina’s water quantity laws for the 21st century, to make sure that all uses – river health, drinking water supplies, agriculture, industry, and power generation – can co-exist sustainably into our future.
July 31, 2008. On the last day of the 2008 short legislative session, the General Assembly passed H2499, Drought/Water Management Recommendations and the Governor has signed it into law (SL 2008-143). A number of good provisions were taken out or weakened during the legislative process - such as mandatory minimum conservation measures for local governments during times of drought - but the bill strengthens North Carolina's ability to weather droughts and takes several steps towards better management of our water resources. Beneficial provisions of the act include:
Better reporting of water use. The Department of Agriculture will collect water use information on large volume users, like farmers and industries, who use over 10,000 gallons per day, and encourage voluntary water use registration. These improvements will help manage resources during drought, and are a key step towards better water management overall.
Better drought emergency response. Several provisions improve the state’s ability to manage serious drought emergencies, by expanding the Governor’s authority to act and by requiring weekly reporting of water use by systems during a bad drought (slow reporting was a major barrier to effective state action in 2007).
New rules and studies. The act orders the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to move forward with rules to allow water reclamation and reuse; and it orders the Health Services Commission to write rules allowing use of gray water on gardens and lawns during drought. The act also calls for a number of studies that may feed into future legislation, such as water efficiency standards.
Protecting virtuous homeowners. During the 2007-08 drought, some homeowner associations have fined residents for failing to keep their lawns green, even when local government had prohibited outdoor watering. The drought act helpfully forbids homeowner associations from fining residents who refuse to water in that situation.
The legislative Environmental Review Commission has commissioned a study of the state's water allocation laws, and environmental groups will continue to work for better water management policies in the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions.
"2008: Time to Improve Drought Response" - fact sheet on H2499.
"The New Normal: Managed Water." Raleigh News & Observer, June 21, 2008
View our fly over video of drought in the Triangle.
Sign-on letter by 26 groups to the Governor and legislative leaders.
UNC School of Government Water Wiki. A collaborative site on water policy in North Carolina.
"Will the Water Run Out?" A forum hosted by WakeUp Wake County and Neuse River Foundation. Feb. 23, 2008. Video by Raleigh Television Network. Part I. Part 2.
NC Drought Management Advisory Council. Provides map of which counties are under drought advisories. Explains the meaning of different categories of drought.
U.S. Geological Survey - NC Drought Watch. Maps and data on precipitation, stream flow and ground water. Some data is available in real-time.
Factfinder – Water and Drought. Raleigh News & Observer blog.
NC Division of Water Resources groundwater levels. Maps and table of monthly ground water levels from wells across the state.
NC Division of Water Resources. Water conservation links.
NC Department of Agriculture drought information sheet (pdf document)