Raindrops

A welcome sound woke me at 2 a.m. one recent Saturday: Plunk … plunk … .

I listened: It was faint and dull. It could be a raccoon fiddling with my trash-can lid (too faint for a bear, too loud for a mouse—we have both here). Plunk. Plunk. Pit. Pat pat pitter-pat.

Rain hitting my tin roof: Ahhh!

The national weather gurus have updated their forecasts for our region, and the mountains of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee may see some slight improvement in the current drought conditions through March of this year. The Saturday before New Year’s, Atlanta received a few welcome inches of rain, missing—by a mere half-inch—setting a record for the driest year in quite a while. I was in Mobile, Ala., at the time, listening to thunder and pounding rain the likes of which only the Gulf Coast can deliver. And although this area has escaped the exceptional drought levels suffered by most of the Southeast, it’s still been much drier than usual. So my relatives and I marveled at the rain. It was both annoying and reassuring to have to dodge puddles and squish through my mom’s front yard as I unloaded holiday gifts.

It was just as reassuring to return home and, for the first time since early summer, hear the rush of the stream 100 yards downhill from my cabin. Until lately, I’d heard only the wind through dry trees. And on a recent Sunday hike, I took pleasure in the damp, musty smell of decaying leaves.

I hope it lingers.

I marvel at weather, wonder about climate change and worry about people. Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to see a bit of all three. Meeting the in-laws drew me to a Biloxi, Miss., casino. And since I didn’t have to spend any of my own money, I took it as a cultural experience. After tiring of the slot machines and feeling somewhat dismayed at the number of $100 bills being fed into them, I chatted with staff whenever possible.

On my last day, a tall, older bellman said he was glad to see the much-needed rain. But we throw it all away—poisoning our streams, our oceans and ourselves, he remarked, adding, “I see it every day.”

The day before, visiting New Orleans’ French Quarter, I’d been surprised to see a big cluster of tents and bedding under Interstate 10 just off Canal Street—more than two years after Katrina. Whatever you believe about global warming, it’s a sad comment on America that we don’t take better notice and don’t take action.

Asheville’s politicos took action decades ago, securing the 22,000-acre North Fork watershed that feeds much of the metropolitan area today (the sketchy history suggests that at least some of it was acquired via foreclosure). This is somewhat surprising, because in the wake of the 1929 stock-market crash, city leaders had stubbornly refused to follow the lead of most cities at the time and declare bankruptcy. The result was decades of crippling debt whose repayment sucked the city coffers dry. Nonetheless, city leaders somehow managed to build a water-treatment plant and a distribution system that can pump more than 30 million gallons of water per day.

True, the system has seen better days, due mainly to subsequent city and county leaders who grew a little too dependent on the percentage of water revenues they skimmed off the top, rather than investing it in maintenance and repairs. The system is still leaky; it’s still expensive. And now it’s in the middle of a protracted legal battle after the once-promising regional agreement with Buncombe and Henderson counties fell through.

But thanks to city leaders’ foresight in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Asheville residents and businesses can draw on a 6-billion-gallon pond that has a permitted capacity of 31 million gallons per day (supplemented by 7 mgd from the Mills River plant, plus another 5 mgd from the soon-to-be-back-online Bee Tree facility).

When residents of surrounding areas turn on their taps, they hold their breath. Wells have run dry; smaller systems have already levied mandatory water restrictions. One resourceful resident in my area ran hundreds of feet of piping up a nearby streambed to tap a foot-deep pool: Whoever it was had to clamber over rocks and gullies and fallen trees to snake the line up the mountainside.

But in Asheville, you can still turn on the spigot and have few worries (other than your bill). So be thankful that some city leaders spent the money decades ago to secure your water. But will the new City Council be as forward-thinking concerning environmental issues? Will you?

A recent Newsweek article about fear and politics noted that global warming doesn’t get us excited the way immigration, gas prices and gay marriage do—it’s just too far out in the future.

Or maybe not. Water demand in the French Broad River basin is projected to grow by 40 percent by the year 2020, while the available supply won’t change much, according to a 2001 report by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (http://ncwater.org/Reports_and_Publications/swsp/swsp_jan2001/final_pdfs/B05_FrBroad.pdf).

Water systems, the report’s authors advise, should try to use no more than 80 percent of their capacity. Most systems in our area are already at that level. So will we take our cue from Atlanta and just keep building and growing, building and growing, until the North Fork Reservoir looks like Lake Lanier and we’re reduced to praying for rain (or swiping it from our neighbors)? How do you control growth without stifling it?

Tough questions. But it’s up to us to find the answers.

[Freelance writer Margaret Williams survived eight years of covering local politics in Asheville.]

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

One thought on “Raindrops

  1. DebateTeam1

    Thanks for the article Margaret and the challenge to find answers. Let me be first to give it a shot. Like many of our problems there are many ways to approach an answer. I would like to offer an alternative to limiting or controlling growth as this raises many personal freedom issues such as property rights usage and the right to live where one wants (pursuit of happiness – what could make one happier than living in the mountains?). Instead, let’s look at the resource issue – the lack of water. There is plenty of water in the world, we just happen to use it inefficiently and it is usually not located where we need to use it. We have grown accustomed to freely using water as we see fit without regard to current supply or the increased demand.

    We can affect water supplies in two ways – through the supply of water and the demand for water. First of all, let’s look at the demand side as this is the way to quickly and effectively change not only the current usage but the rate of increased demand. Our goal will be to reduce per capita water usage so that by 2020 our water usage is no more than it is today. Can it be done? Perhaps. We can at least make strides in that direction. Let’s look at how water is used. According to The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and US Geological Survey both have closely the same figures for types of water consumption. Please see the links below for details at those websites:

    http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3051/
    http://www.infoforhealth.org/pr/m14/m14chap2_2.shtml

    Here is a summary of the types of Water Usage:
    - Energy – Thermoelectric Power 48% of all water withdrawals
    - Crops– Irrigation accounts for 34% of all water withdrawals.
    - Public Supply – Household usage accounts for 11% of all water withdrawals.
    - Industrial – Business use of water is 5% of all water withdrawals.
    - Animals and Mining – Livestock, Fish farming and mining account for 3%.

    Details for each of the usages above can be found with a very detailed map at the USGS site:

    http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2004/circ1268/htdocs/figure10.html

    Please note that the USGS determining that “people” usage is only 11% of the water supply. The vast majority of water usage is for energy production and crop irrigation. The USGS also determined that although our population grew by 33 million between 1990 and 2000 our per capita usage dropped from 1620 gals/day to 1430 gals per/day. What this shows is two things – we are getting more efficient in using water resources, but our population is growing so we have to become even more efficient.
    How do we become more efficient? We need to focus on all categories of demand.

    Demand Reduction Methods:

    Energy Creation and Water Conservation

    Creating power either through fossil fuels or nuclear power requires an enormous amount of water -48% of total water usage. The demand for this water will compete with human usage and agricultural usage as our population grows. The Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy office is researching many ways to reduce the demand for water as part of the energy generation process. The details are far too difficult to explain in this response but suffice it to say that technology will be the key to finding ways to recycle water within the power plants as well as ways to more efficiently use water for cooling, or alternate means for cooling. Read more about the DOE’s initiatives here at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

    http://www.iags.org/n0829052.htm

    Industrial Water Conservation:

    While it is only 5% of total water withdrawals, industrial use is an area where technological improvement s can have a huge impact. Industrial uses cover uses for making products (Paper, chemicals, food), transporting products, and sanitizing plants. The industrial needs are diverse and so are the solutions. Everything from simple conservation to improved manufacturing methods will results in higher efficiency and lower demands.

    Domestic (Households) Conservation:

    Everyone should know to use low water shower heads. Some of us even know what a “Navy Shower” is… (For those that don’t it is a 2 minute shower. One minute to get wet, turn the water off and soap up, then turn the water on for one minute to rinse off. There are plenty of other methods too. The sources for this effort can easily be Googled. Just type in “Water Conservation”. Enjoy.

    Education is the key in conservation. Just like we teach our kids not to use drugs or have unsafe sex, we need to teach them about responsible resource usage and conservation techniques. If we don’t teach them it will be hard lesson to be learned in 12-15 years from now and a very expensive one.

    Supply Increase Methods:

    Water is neither created or destroyed it just changes is form – it evaporates after a rain or from lakes and oceans, and is physically moved through the atmosphere to another location. This is a problem. When we have a drought in one area it is always raining like crazy in another part of the US or the world. But the water all ends up back in the oceans at some point. – And that is our endless supply. Now all we have to do is determine out how to make it drinkable and get to where the people are located….

    Desalinization

    Desalinization is the process of removing salt from seawater to make it usable as drinking water. It is an expensive process but one that is already in place in the USA. Check it out at:

    http://www.tampabaywater.org/watersupply/tbdesal.aspx

    Redistribution

    I am sure many have been reading and say – well it hasn’t rained here much lately and increasing populations will only strain our declining supplies. But we can address this much in the same way that we address our oil and gas distribution– water pipelines can be created to run inland to bring water where Mother Nature has not been so kind. Some might argue the cost of water will rise because of the cost to remove salt from seawater and to pipe it from the oceans and they would be correct. And it is ok if that happens. Part of the reason we have the water supply issue is that water is currently very cheap and people put very little value on it. As the price of water increases so will our awareness of our waste of the resource. That rise in price will naturally cause the water demand to be reduced and our per capita usage. Just like cars and gas, people will become more efficient users of water as the price rises and less wasteful of it altogether.

    Recycling

    Reusing water is the one way to “increase” the water supply. Using gray water for subsurface irrigation of lawns and gardens is a great way for individuals to recycle. To read more about this start with the Arizona Residential Conservation website at:

    http://www.sahra.arizona.edu/programs/water_cons/tips/re-use/gray.htm

    We can also recycle water through wastewater treatment and reuse. This is a straightforward process and one in which we will become more reliant in the future. For details on advances in wastewater treatment read up at the EPA and at Wikipedia.

    http://www.epa.gov/region09/water/recycling/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reclaimed_water

    Rainwater Harvesting

    Anyone who has been to an island such as Bermuda knows all about this. They paint their rooftops with non metallic paint and use guttering and holding tanks to collect the rainwater and pipe it into the house. Read about on the United Nations website:

    http://www.unep.or.jp/ietc/Publications/Urban/UrbanEnv-2/9.asp

    I hope this sheds a little more light on this difficult issue. I hope that folks in Asheville will accept that people will want to move to the mountains and we should not try to control that growth artificially. After all, we are all immigrants to this land and it is only natural for others to follow to a place this beautiful. It will be expensive to accomplish some of the things noted here and as a result it will be less appealing when water isn’t so cheap. So instead of focusing on controlling the growth, let’s focus on the issue of water supply and demand because that is both the problem and the solution.

    Thanks for reading…

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