Water, water everywhere … ?

The Water Efficiency Task Force appears to have accomplished its mission — promoting education and conservation. So members of the Policies and Priorities Committee of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson have recommended dissolving the citizens’ group.

“After much discussion, we decided the WET Force had completed what its original charter called for — [creating] a water-efficiency program,” said committee Chair Gary Semlak at the Sept. 15 meeting of the Water Authority board. Although committee members and other Authority board members applaud the WET Force’s accomplishments, he continued, they had decided to dissolve the group — or, at least, to withdraw Authority staff support and funding.

Ironically, it seems that the education-and-conservation programs spearheaded by the WET Force may have worked too well: The Authority’s revenues are down, at least in part because of a conservation campaign spurred by the drought of 1998. Combine that with other downward pressures on revenues, and with the Authority’s recently increased water-production capacity, and the agency needs to sell more water, not conserve it.

Addressing Water Authority board members on Sept. 15, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick acknowledged this revenue reality even as she made a pitch to keep the WET Force active. “I see no sense in abolishing a program that has succeeded in its task,” said Sitnick. Although she said she understands the Authority’s revenue problems, Sitnick also pointed out that municipalities and water-service providers across the state have copied such WET Force projects as establishing educational programs in local schools and distributing water-conservation kits.

But WET Force Chair Mort Jonas gave Authority board members a somewhat different picture. Citizen participation has lagged during the past year, he said. Jonas also revealed that, as part of an effort to revive the group and re-focus its mission, he had drafted changes to WET Force bylaws, not realizing that some of his recommendations — such as removing the requirement that WET Force members be Authority customers — conflicted with the Water Authority’s own bylaws. “I made a mistake,” said Jonas. And, conceding that WET Force events may be taking up too much Authority staff time, he suggested that the group live on in an advisory capacity, as a citizens’ review board for the Authority — one that “would be thinking about water-efficiency [issues] all the time. … Keep the pilot light lit to turn on in times of drought.”

“Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” countered WET Force charter member Hazel Fobes. She demanded that the Authority keep the group under its wing, and she pushed for taking a second look at Jonas’ recommended changes and making them fit the bylaws. Fobes also chastised current WET Force members for not keeping in better contact with the Authority and for letting staff do “all the work.” Reminding them of the Asheville area’s recurring droughts, Fobes concluded, “Abolish the WET Force today, and tomorrow, you may need to reinstate it.”

At that point, Asheville City Council member Charles Worley (who was attending the Water Authority’s meeting in connection with another issue) spoke up; he suggested postponing a decision till more information could be collected. “I don’t know if [the WET Force] has outlived its purpose,” he observed.

Authority board member Tom Sobol (who’s also chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners) agreed, suggesting that the Water Authority table the issue for 60 days. “The sun isn’t always going to be shining, and we don’t need to throw away our umbrellas,” he commented.

Water Authority Chair Jack Tate, noting that members of the Policies Committee had meant no disrepect to the WET Force, reiterated that the group has done a good job.

“There’s no question of the quality of the work and the dedication,” added Semlak. But he also noted the existence of another volunteer group that’s actively helping local companies reduce their water use — the WRATT Force, a coalition of retired engineers. And, speaking about the WET Force, he remarked, “We have to ask: How much more can you do?” Semlak urged Jonas and other WET Force members to come up with a plan “that’s more active,” with “more work done by volunteers.”

Sobol moved that the Water Authority table making a decision; seconded by Bill Moyer, the motion passed 8-0 (Authority board member J. Lewis Daniels was absent from the nine-member board that day).

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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