“Exceptional” is a deceptive term when used to describe the current drought in most of North Carolina. If it’s so unusual, we may feel we don’t need to plan for a repeat of such conditions in the future. But most climate-change scenarios predict that we’ll probably have more periods of extended drought in the Southeast. Meeting the needs of people and ecosystems in a world of less-predictable supply will require a major overhaul of our whole approach to water pricing, planning, monitoring and financing.
The Biggest Users
Big coal and nuclear plants are by far the state’s largest water hogs. Together, they withdraw more than 9 billion gallons a day, compared to 1 billion for all of the state’s public water supplies. And while utilities return much of this to rivers and lakes, millions of gallons are evaporated both at each plant and downstream. We simply can’t keep generating power at the expense of our water supply. And during a drought, we can’t count on these plants to meet our power needs—two of Duke Energy’s coal plants powered down in August. Our current energy path will ensure that we’ll run short of both water and energy. We need aggressive efficiency and conservation efforts to prevent new water-hogging power plants, and we should replace the existing ones with distributed, renewable power sources as quickly as possible.
Irrigation is the state’s second-biggest water waster. Europe and other water-limited areas have long since changed to efficient drip-irrigation systems. It will take a public commitment to enable our farmers to make this critical transition before the next major drought. The savings in drought-blighted farm production and water withdrawals from streams will pay for themselves many times over.
Many local governments have been slow to call for mandatory conservation measures for public water customers. Current law allows local authorities to make their own decisions about conservation unless the governor declares a statewide public-health emergency. Local governments want to avoid inconveniencing residents and businesses, but there’s something bigger behind the foot-dragging: Selling treated water is a big income source for local governments, which use it to pay off debts incurred by building water infrastructure. Debt payments don’t change during a drought, so reducing sales squeezes a town’s whole budget, making it tough for officials to demand conservation.
Why is local debt so high? When a city hires a consulting engineer to look at options for ensuring an adequate water supply, the consulting firm typically focuses on large-scale engineering projects, rather than ways to avoid the need to tap new water sources. And since these firms often receive a percentage of the cost of projects they design, there’s little motivation to recommend other, more cost-effective approaches. Independent, “big picture” advice on conservation strategies for water suppliers is hard to find. Eliminating water-line leaks, replacing wasteful appliances, changing major industrial processes and charging large-volume users higher prices are all much more cost-effective than “creating” new water supply via reservoirs and big infrastructure projects.
Some towns’ water-supply lines leak up to 50 percent of their treated water! A carrot-and-stick approach of incentives and penalties could reduce that to less than 5 percent. Irrigating lawns, flushing toilets and many industrial processes don’t require expensive, treated water. An average household could cut its water costs by more than 50 percent simply by capturing thousands of gallons of storm runoff from roofs and driveways, storing it in underground cisterns (to prevent evaporation), and using it for “nonpotable” applications. Ordinances requiring all new developments to install water-capture systems would greatly extend our water supplies.
What about wells?
Like 2.7 million other North Carolinians, I get my drinking water from a private well. But should the fact that I paid for that well entitle me to pump limitless ground water to use any way I like? That’s what the law says now, and as a result, we’re stealing from our future. In some ways, North Carolina’s ground water is even more precious than surface water. When there’s no rain for months, the only water flowing in our streams is ground water, which is also slow to be replenished when rainfall returns after a drought. And contaminated ground water takes much longer to clean than surface water. My well should give me the right to meet my basic needs, but if I waste water on nonessential uses, I should face the same consequences as wasteful public-water customers—and not just during droughts.
A statewide approach
A state water-conservation utility could help local governments with consulting services and financing for water audits and conservation strategies; it could also directly finance installing water-capture systems and efficient appliances in homes and businesses.
Merging conservation efforts for water and energy makes sense: Saving energy also reduces the amount of water required to generate power (much of which evaporates in the process). And reducing water use cuts the substantial energy costs involved in treating and pumping water to customers. Conservation approaches would pay for themselves through reduced water bills for customers, and reduced energy and construction costs for public water systems.
Water customers in the Southeast have the highest per capita water use in the world, but it’s a luxury we don’t need and can’t afford. We need to account for all of our water uses and prioritize basic needs in crafting policies for economically just and sustainable water management in our state.
[Hope Taylor is executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. A former biomedical researcher at the National Institutes of Health and Duke University, she works with rural communities across the state to protect well water, streams and promote environmental justice.]