Though I went in with a small bit of skepticism about the forum, I was really pleased to see a positive, thoughtful debate at Wednesday night's Wise Women for Growth discussion on this year's drought situation. Kudos to the folks in this self-described "very ad hoc" group of women looking at infill, downtown and greenfield development for bringing three interesting perspectives together.
They didn't attract a huge crowd -- about 35 folks by my count -- but dear Lord, they attracted more politicians to one room than you'd see in a North Carolina Optometrist convention back in the Jim Black days. Heck, if you wanted to really make this year's County Commission race a competition-free experience, you'd have wished an asteroid would have struck the Durham County Library last night: incumbents Becky "Keep Her-On" Heron and Ellen Reckhow were there, along with challengers Brenda Howerton, Don Moffitt and Josh Parker.
Add to that State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., Durham City-County Planning honcho Steve Medlin, and indefatigable City Councilman Mike Woodard, and it was a scene of real political interest last night.
Our takeaway from the forum confirmed much of what we've learned in other recent discussions of the state's water crisis:
- Jordan Lake is a multiple-decade solution to water needs, even with growth. That said, it's a normative choice whether we want to take advantage of it as a community to leverage everyday growth, or simply for emergencies.
- Some (like Carrboro's Mayor Chilton) would argue that Jordan Lake should only be open to development if communities cut back on detached single family homes and move in support of density.
- Drought is not a rare occurence in North Carolina -- it's inescapable in our geological history. Change on the demand as well as supply side is needed to minimize the future impact of such events.
- Government retains a big role to play, from education to incentivizing low-flow fixtures and appliances, to regional planning efforts, to rules on development.
Syd Miller from the Triangle J Council of Government shared some interesting data, notably a graph showing, by date, the total amount of rainfall in the previous 12 months measured as a percentage of the typical 43" annual Triangle precipitation. On Sept. 3, 2000, the Triangle sat at 140% of normal one-year rainfall; that figure plunged to 66% on June 25, 2002; then, back up to 140% after tropical storms. "We went from the driest year on record in North Carolina to the wettest year on record here," Miller said.
On the plus side, Miller noted, the Triangle has moved back into the "extreme drought" from an "extraordinary drought" level, with Federal projections showing some ongoing improvement in drought conditions as the most likely forecast in the coming months. Still, we're a good 6-8" inches of cumulative rainfall before normal.
Still, Miller noted, this isn't an extraordinary situation in the broadest sense of Piedmont history. "Drought is a normal occurence in North Carolina," Miller said, "and we can have worse droughts in North Carolina than any of us can see." To this end, the regional water planning specialist noted that arboreal records dating back to the 12th century demonstrated that the state has had droughts far worse than the current condition, along with periods of heavy rain and moisture.
Miller didn't raise these points to suggest there's nothing to worry about, though. On the contrary, he emphasized the need for local governments to focus on immediate, mid-term and long-term solutions on the supply and demand side to change the water situation.
In recent history, Miller praised government officials at the state and local level for their public pronouncements on the drought and for ordinance changes in light of water shortages. Still to come, Miller predicted, we'd see utility rate structures that provide tiered pricing to encourage conservation, a focus on low-flow fixtures and appliances, and permanent infrastructure to provide highly-treated wastewater for non-potable purposes like landscaping and industrial uses. Permeating all these: a realization that conservation is not an emergency-only condition.
Part of this, Miller emphasized, is a matter of getting local residents "away from this thought that all yards should look like England."
For the longer run, Miller noted the need to make sure adequate supplies were present to meet present and future demand. Miller noted that the fifty-year safe yield -- meaning a draw that would be available in 98% of all years -- for Durham's two current reservoirs is 37 million gallons per day (MGD). Yet even this safe yield is subject to the climate changes unique to our area: "North Carolina is even more variable in climate than most other places in the United States; so, it's difficult to estimate how much water is available from any given source," Miller said.
Jordan Lake, Miller concluded, is a reasonable source of future water for Durham and other communities; he reminded the audience of the lake's 1,680+ mile watershed, which is more than 2.5 times the size of Falls Lake's. A western intake through a multi-governmental partnership would make sense to tap this resource, Miller noted. At the same time, increased intergovernmental sharing and interconnections would help move water between municipalities and provide some support during periods of prolonged drought.
Next up: Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, whose own opposition to just blindly using Jordan Lake has been well-documeted in the press. “I don’t believe that the present water supply problem in the Triangle can be solved by increasing our access to Jordan Lake," Chilton noted in his opening comments.
While he agreed with Miller that Jordan Lake is in fact 'underutilized' today, Chilton portrayed the problem as one of our development choices. “The fact is, the main problem that we have in the Triangle is not a water supply problem, but a water consumption problem." Chilton went on to blame "suburban growth" and single family detached homes as major contributors to this problem, noting that condos, apartments and retail uses are much more efficient users of water.
“If we don’t change the way that we’re growing," Chilton said, "how will increasing the water supply really help?”
Chilton expressed concern that Jordan Lake was a 40-year project that would be much harder in today's environmental and regulatory world -- and a project that, at that, he felt would be "disasterous" to repeat anywhere in North Carolina.
“I hope we never will build another lake like Jordan Lake in North Carolina," Chilton said. "There were hundreds of farms that were flooded, many people who lost their land forcibly in the creation of Jordan Lake.”
Chilton did note that two additional reservoir sites were chosen back in the days when Jordan Lake made it on the map; both of these are located on the Deep River. Yet Chilton complained that one of these sites is one of the "few remaining natural habitats" for the Cape Fear shiner, making it an inappropriate site for new water supply reservoirs.
Chilton conceded that with Cary only pulling 40% of the water it's authorized to -- with further allocations to multiple municipalities expected -- that “granted, there’s a lot of water still to be tapped in Jordan Lake.” But Chilton presented this as an issue of development choices, not supply.
“If we’re just going to use that water in the same way [over 15-20 years] we’ve used all the other water that we’ve already blown are way through, what is the point? ... Can’t we, before we even go to Jordan Lake … begin to adopt now the strategies that we’re going to need as a region to ensure that we don’t need to build another Jordan Lake, ever?” Chilton went on to propose a century-plus time horizon for Jordan Lake as a sustainable water source as a desirable goal for the Triangle.
“None of what I’m saying means the Triangle should fail to look to Jordan Lake as a solution for our present issues," Chilton clarified. But he went on to stress that demand management is necessary.
Chilton called for requiring that new developments use xeriscaping, a landscaping approach that uses native and low-water plants, instead of the traditional grass look. Chilton also stressed the need for denser development, which would be more water-efficient and improve water quality by reducing the amount of impervious surface.
The third and final speaker was Bill Holman, the former secretary of N.C.'s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and now a senior fellow at Duke's Nicholas School. Holman noted Durham's grown by 37% between 1990 and 2000, and that the Bull City could expect to go from 220,000 water customers in 2008 to 337,000 in 2035.
The City has in the past been forward-thinking in its water supply, Holman said, noting that Lake Michie in the 1920s and the Little River Reservoir in the 1980s have provided a generally strong and sustainable water supply.
“You’ve gotten through drought in the past because you’ve had large supply, you’ve had moderate growth, and you’ve had low water rates because of these pretty smart investments," said Holman. “Really our population growth kind of caught up with us, not just in the Triangle but really all around the state.”
Is our water supply really strained? Beyond the 37 MGD that Durham can today produce through its two reservoirs, Holman reminded the crowd of other available water resources under development:
- By 2010, the Teer Quarry would be regularly refilled by water from Teer Quarry, adding another 7 MGD.
- Durham is working on new interconnections with Cary to get closer to using all of its current 10 MGD allocation -- but also, according to Holman, would likely seek another 10 MGD of sourcing, though this could only be supplied through a second intake and new treatment plant.
The cost for the latter is certainly not cheap, with Syd Miller estimating it could run $40 million all-told for infrastructure, not counting the cost of pumping it uphill to Durham.
Holman also suggested improved re-use of treated stormwater, and encouraged more system interconnections to provide support between systems during emergency periods.
Holman also praised Durham and Orange Counties for taking care to protect their existing watersheds, such as Durham's ongoing program to buy land upstream of its current reservoirs -- an important step for both reducing sedimentation in the current facilities and for improving water quality overall.
Chilton, however, noted his concern that it was only counties that were so protecting and valuing the water resources that "deserved" to draw from new sources like Jordan Lake.
Chilton stated would like to see one factor for who gets the water be who’s using water well and wisely now, not based on their “current profligate use” of water. “That community ought to be rewarded for its intelligent use of water, that community ought to get more water," said Chilton.
“Many of our local governments in Orange and Durham Counties have gone farther” than other governments in the state in trying to protect watersheds, he added. “If you say you want Jordan Lake water, then one way you can prove how much you value Jordan Lake water” is by measuring whether strong stream buffers, stormwater management programs, and the like are in place already in these municipalities.
During the Q&A period, the interplay between power (electrical, not Chilton's Waterworld-esque concept) and water were frequent topics of discussion. One audience member asked what the water impact would be of the proposed new nuclear and coal facilities in the state. Each one, soberingly enough, could use up 35-40 MGD of evaporated water, or about the same daily amount as the entire City of Durham uses.
At the same time, municipalities expend about 20% of their total electrical usage just pumping water through the city system. Reduce water use, and you reduce electrical use -- which in turn saves waters.
Chilton also provided some positive news about conservation. Before the 2002 drought, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) was seeing demand of 11 MGD; during the drought, that fell to 8 MGD thanks to conservation efforts. And while usage rebounded after the drought cleared, it only did so to 9 MGD of demand -- a sign that the community was getting the message, Chilton crowed, even in the midst of a period of rapid growth.
Wise Women for Growth will have a follow-up forum later in April; we'll bring you more as the date nears.