***Note: In the Xpress story below, we stated that the $350,000 UNC Asheville claimed to be saving by closing the Environmental Quality Institute would be on a per year basis. In fact, communications from UNCA officials did not indicate those were annual savings. In this letter from EQI Director Steven Patch, he says the university was facing a one-time expense of $280,000 as part of the renovation of the EQI lab part of an overall building renovation.***
The phasing out of UNCA's Environmental Quality Institute has raised concerns about the impact on regional water-quality research and protection.
"We were pretty caught off-guard that the chancellor would choose to close the EQI, given how much we think it benefits the school, the region and statewide," said Gracia O'Neill of the nonprofit Clean Water for North Carolina.
The late Dr. Richard Maas, who founded the institute, once served on the nonprofit's board, she noted, and the two groups collaborated on studies of lead, arsenic and copper in drinking water. Affordable test kits helped map contaminants in water sources, O'Neill explained. And the Volunteer Water Information Network, which the institute coordinated in recent years, enabled more intensive research to be done at lower cost.
"By pairing up these two, we get a better, well-rounded idea of [water quality]," she said. "You get a lot of bang for your buck."
VWIN Coordinator Marilyn Westphal said the data has helped local groups secure grants to clean up water sources. It also fills in gaps in the state Division of Water Quality's own sampling data and helps determine the effects of things like steep-slope construction and storm-water runoff. Getting funding to fix contaminated watersheds could be more difficult without that information, she said.
On July 13, the school announced it was cutting 43 campus positions in anticipation of a 10 percent reduction in state funding, resulting in eight layoffs and nine employee transfers. Shutting down the EQI will account for three layoffs and one transfer.
"I really hate to see it go. That type of data, with that much data, is really unusual to have in a watershed," said French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of RiverLink. "I really hope it gets picked up by somebody."
Launched in 1990 by the French Broad River Foundation, the VWIN program was later taken over by RiverLink and then transferred to the institute. Over the years, the EQI's analysis of samples collected by volunteers has resulted in an unusually detailed map of local stream conditions, said Carson.
In preparation for the funding cuts, however, UNC President Erskine Bowles instructed schools in the state system to review all campus programs, Vice Chancellor Jane Fernandes told Xpress.
"While EQI and [the Mössbauer Effect Data Center] do good work in their respective fields, UNC-Asheville's core mission of educating undergraduate students was not integral to the work of either center," she said.
Westphal said she's puzzled by the closing, planned within six to 12 months, because the EQI is funded by grants.
Fernandes, however, said the move will save the university about $350,000 per year. "Although … EQI operates on grant funding, state funding is involved in the center's operations, including provision of infrastructure, lab space, overhead costs, administrative oversight and the salary of the faculty member who directs the center on a half-time basis," she explained.
Carson, meanwhile, said Westphal's transfer to another UNCA department is itself a loss for the study of local water quality. "She's the only person I know that you could randomly name a creek and she could tell you how healthy it was," he noted.
In an e-mail to supporters announcing VWIN's closing, Westphal said she hopes the program will be resuscitated by another party, cautioning, "I just don't know yet what the outcome of the negotiations will be, or if there will be any unexpected roadblocks."
In light of the budget cuts, some have questioned the $2.4 million allocated for the multipurpose Pisgah House. In the works since 1997, it will serve as Chancellor Anne Ponder's residence while housing meetings, receptions and concerts. "Perhaps the $600,000 approved for … Pisgah House could have been spent more wisely," UNCA alumnus Jason Nolan wrote in a letter in Xpress.
Public Information Director Merianne Epstein explained that every UNC system school must provide housing for its chancellor. The bulk of the funding for Pisgah House, she noted, was raised privately by the nonprofit UNC Asheville Foundation. "No state funds are being used for the construction of Pisgah House," said Epstein, "other than the $600,000 in net proceeds from the sale of the Macon Avenue home" that was the chancellor's former residence.
Unable to accommodate other university functions, that property was sold in 2005, she said. Construction of Pisgah House began in 2007, and it's expected to be completed this fall.