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.]