On April 11, state Sen. Joe Sam Queen of Haywood County arrived at the Old Fort home of Leonard and Janice Hensley. The couple handed the legislator a 4-inch pile of papers bearing signatures of residents opposed to any measure to meter water use in private wells in North Carolina. According to Janice Hensley, Queen intends to hand-deliver copies of the petition, collected in 28 counties, to Sen. Marc Basnight, president pro tem of the state Senate, and Gov. Mike Easley.
Only here’s the thing: According to letters by Queen and state Rep. Ray Rapp, both of whom sit on the General Assembly’s Joint Select Committee on Agricultural Drought Response, as well as other legislators in Raleigh, no such measure is even on the table.
“Let me be clear as a pristine mountain stream,” Rapp wrote to Janice Hensley on March 25. “There is no consideration being given to monitoring or metering private wells.”
That sentiment is echoed in letters from several other state legislators, including Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County.
But such assurances apparently offer little comfort to well owners like Hensley, who says she thinks the issue could resurface. And she’s not alone: The topic has become an ignition point for heated discussions on local talk radio as well.
“I think they put it on the back burner,” Hensley says of well monitoring. The petition, she says, is intended to make sure the “dead issue,” as Fisher describes it, stays dead, and now she is turning her attention to a bill intended to protect water quality in wells—much to the dismay of clean-water activists.
That’s not to say the controversy was invented out of thin air. Members of the drought committee say the idea to monitor water use in private wells came from Gov. Easley’s office but that the committee immediately dismissed it.
“No one on the committee responded to the idea and it was clear there was not one vote on the committee to support such a measure,” Rapp wrote in an e-mail to Xpress. Rapp says that after the February meeting where the notion was floated, he relayed the information to one of Easley’s aides, who said the governor would not pursue it.
Then, an article in the Feb. 26 Asheville Citizen-Times, “N.C. May Keep an Eye on Water Use,” included remarks from Queen that seemed to support well metering. “I think in the short term, people are just going to have to register their water use, one way or the other,” he was quoted as saying.
The Citizen-Times ran a correction the next day, stating that only agricultural operations and large businesses using well water were being considered for monitoring. Then, on March 23, the newspaper published a commentary by Queen in which he denounced the proposal while acknowledging that the mix-up had triggered widespread concerns and a petition drive.
But a fire had already been lit under the issue, and word traveled fast around Western North Carolina. On the afternoon radio talk show Take a Stand! with Matt Mittan, on 570 AM, the phones kept ringing and the conversation kept going.
“It was massive,” Mittan says. “It has been the biggest reaction” from his audience, he says, since the partisan-election issue rankled Asheville voters in 2007.
That momentum was fueled, Mittan believes, by what was seen as backtracking by politicians. He thinks the legislators only backed down when they heard the outcry from well owners, and that, he says, “seemed to upset people even more.”
For Hensley, even the specter of the possibility that the state could meter her well was enough to keep the petition moving along. She hopes the strength of the indignation expressed through those signatures is enough to convince legislators that the issue “is a hot potato, and [they] better not touch it.”
The petition also addresses the fact that the issue came up when the legislature is about to go into a short session—a schedule that Hensley says is too streamlined to provide adequate public input on such a controversial proposal. When Hensley handed off the petition to Queen, she estimated it contained nearly 10,000 signatures, and she says more continue to arrive in the mail—evidence, she suggests, that the assurances of the proposal’s demise are not enough to stem public outcry when property rights are on the line. “They’ve never seen so many people so angry,” she says.
Building on those sentiments, Hensley is turning her attention to another well-water issue: a new state law that will go into effect in July and require water-quality testing for private wells. Though she says she supports healthy drinking water, Hensley objects to key parts of the regulation.
“We ALL want clean water without exception,” she wrote in an e-mail to Xpress. “But the bill is extremely overbearing in fines, fees and red tape.”
Hope Taylor, executive director for the nonprofit Clean Water for North Carolina, calls the prospect of a campaign to repeal the new law “terrifying.” The water-testing law, which regulates only new wells and those that are transferred as part of a property sale, is only the beginning, in terms of what is needed to protect drinking water, she says.
“We know [of] dozens of often low-income communities that have had contaminated wells for years,” she wrote in an e-mail to Xpress. “We’ve just begun to correct this problem by ensuring that NEW wells are inspected and tested … but millions of us in NC are not protected.”