WET Force’s day of reckoning nears

Many Mountain Xpress readers are familiar with the work of the Water Efficiency Task Force (a.k.a. the WET Force). As reported recently in these pages [“Water, water, everywhere …?,” Oct. 4], the Regional Water Authority is considering a recommendation from its Policy and Priorities Committee that the group be dissolved.

The committee has argued that the WET Force has achieved its primary purpose: to oversee the establishment of a terrific educational program on water-conservation issues.

But a number of activists in the community, including Mayor Leni Sitnick, believe there is an ongoing need for a water-efficiency advocacy group.

Gary Semlak, chair of the Policies and Priorities Committee, is a longtime friend (and former member) of the WET Force. He did not present his group’s recommendation out of malice or ill will. It was simply a matter of deciding whether or not there was an ongoing need for the group.

After much discussion, Water Authority members voted unanimously at their last meeting to table a decision on this matter until their November meeting. That meeting is now just a few weeks away.

I have chaired the WET Force for about four years. During that period, a great deal has been accomplished: The award-winning educational programs offered to local students have continued to grow, providing important insights to children who will grow up to be the next generation of water consumers; the efforts of Waste Reduction Partners have educated industrial and commercial water customers about the cost-effectiveness of water efficiency; and two educational workshops have been offered to the public with great success.

However, I can claim very little responsibility for these successes, either personally or on behalf of our group. For the most part, they were achieved through the work of paid staff, with minimal support from WET Force volunteers. And although our meetings have been held only six times a year, it has been difficult to find people willing to serve.

Perhaps the perception has been that water efficiency is being handled well and doesn’t need citizen volunteers. For now, that may be true. But there’s always the possibility that educational programs may be cut due to budget pressures. What’s more, the Water Authority is very concerned about selling enough water to meet its revenue goals; convincing customers to use less water, however laudable it may be as a long-term goal, is not the Authority’s top priority.

One of the reasons for establishing the WET Force in the early ’90s was that, at that time, there was no effective way for Water Authority customers to have a voice in public policy. And this is where disbanding the WET Force now would leave a void. The next time we experience a major drought in our area, the Water Authority might come to regret not having the support of a committee focused primarily on water conservation.

My sense is that many Water Authority board members (perhaps a majority) would be open to continuing the WET Force — if we can come up with a viable plan for the group.

It has only recently become clear that WET Force members must (by law) be customers of the Water Authority. I am not a customer, and therefore it isn’t legal for me to be a member of the group (much less its chair). Unless we can demonstrate, both to ourselves and to the Water Authority, that there are a reasonable number of customers who want to be active on the WET Force, I don’t think the Authority will be able to avoid dissolving the group at its November meeting.

The next WET Force meeting will take place on Thursday, Nov. 2, at 4 p.m., in the sixth-floor conference room of Asheville City Hall. All interested parties are invited to attend (whether or not they are current WET Force members or current Water Authority customers) to help brainstorm where to go from here. It is my fervent wish that a new leader emerges on that day who can be recommended to take over as chair, and that this meeting will spark a renewed vitality for this volunteer group.

If attendance at the Nov. 2 meeting is minimal, if a new leader does not emerge then, or if the attendees do not come up with a practical plan for keeping the WET Force vital, this may well be the last meeting of an important citizen-advocacy group.

[Mort Jonas is the founder of EarthStage Productions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the use of theater to inspire caring for our natural resources. He can be reached via e-mail at MJonas@Madison.main.nc.us.]

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