Drought tolerance | Cat Warren | Indy Week
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We are in deep silt, smack in the dry river bed of denial.

Drought tolerance 

Click for larger image • While Durham is down to 39 days of premium water, Raleigh is preparing to implement tighter restrictions to conserve the supply in the dwindling Falls Lake.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • While Durham is down to 39 days of premium water, Raleigh is preparing to implement tighter restrictions to conserve the supply in the dwindling Falls Lake.

It'll rain in the next nine months. But probably not a lot. Those pesky climatologists and meteorologists keep telling North Carolina politicians and citizens what they would rather not hear. We are in deep silt, smack in the dry river bed of denial.

But don't worry, kids! Durham, with the lowest supplies of any municipality in the Triangle, has a mascot—Wayne Drop, a large blue droplet with skinny legs who goes around pleading with children to educate their parents. Just a plonk in the educational bucket of our uncertain global future. Nonetheless, The Durham Herald-Sun awarded the Durham Grit award to Wayne Drop for "immersing us in conversation."

We're immersed in conversation—but not in conservation. We'll have to drink Wayne at some point, which will be sad, and kind of a waste of Wayne because he will only briefly wet our dry gullets. There's nothing I hate more than government waste. Except, perhaps, running out of water.

Because it's not just Wayne who's failing. Many, if not most, of our state and city leaders are failing us. Our governor, who is doing more than most, isn't doing enough. Modeling his own 26-second showers for us is about as effective as President Jimmy Carter wearing his beige cardigan and asking the public to turn down the thermostat.

As citizens, we're flunking the water conservation test. For despite the misleading hype on the City of Durham Web site—31 percent reduction!—Durham residents have actually cut back just 9 percent on their water use over the same time period last year. Imagine. Nine percent reduction. I can't figure that out in toilet flushes (the largest household use of water), but it's not a lot. On Dec. 11, we used 23.1 million gallons. Last year, we used 24.7 million. Crisis? What crisis?

As of Dec. 17, the city had 39 days left of easily accessible, premium water from Lake Michie and Little River Lake. On Dec. 18, Durham tapped into the Teer Quarry to wring out another month's supply.

Chapel Hillians, don't go feeling smug here. You're richer and cooler and more aware than we Durhamites. I know you wear more 100 percent organic cotton. But the average usage is about the same for each city—estimated at about 72 gallons a day per person. And Chapel Hill is using only 12 percent less than what it used during the same period last year. If we all work together, good Triangle citizens, I expect we can get to 13 percent. But Bill Holman, Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions visiting senior fellow, notes that we've probably tapped out the reductions from voluntary behavior change. Which is sad because it's both true and false. If you marked both on your water test, you would be right. Through assiduous study of a water bill that's harder to understand than the Torah, and through the application of simple conservation principles, Durham resident Christopher Sanford and his wife, Catherine, have decreased their use to a total of 75 gallons a day.

Of course, when there's no water left, it'll be even easier to reduce our water usage—just two or three hours a day of water available from our taps will change behavior quite involuntarily. We'll quickly find savings that households simply couldn't find before. But I expect at that point, we won't be quite so drought tolerant. We'll be whining and screaming and asking why something wasn't done. We'll want it fixed. We'll find out that trucking fresh water in from far away, because the whole Southeast will need it, is a massive state and federal nightmare.

But short of that? Go easy on the taps. Continue to feel free to resent the neighbors who watered their lawns through October, although they're all dead now anyway (the lawns, not the neighbors), which secretly pleases a number of us. Get angry about the new house down the road where thousands of dollars of moisture-loving landscaping just went in. In the meantime, you might wonder guiltily why you didn't cut back on those long, hot showers, so needed to relax tense shoulders and clear cloudy minds of nasty global warming worries.

Far too many of us won't want to spend too much money or time on figuring out fixes for this. Or change our behavior permanently. But of course, we're going to have to do all of it. Because we can't fix the weather. We're not gonna start the rain by complaining. The dark brown stain on the drought map continues to ooze farther to the southeastern part of the state, with 78 counties now in exceptional drought.

It's time we did us some talkin' to our government. I am badly in need of some faith. I don't mean the Gov.-Sonny-Perdue-let's-stand-on-the-capitol-steps-of-Georgia-and-pray-for-rain kind of faith. No, I mean a deeper, nostalgic, perhaps even more unachievable, ineffable, illogical faith. I want to have faith in good government. Because that's what we need right now, or we're sunk. In deep dust.

A drought isn't just about a lack of rain, although that's one of its characteristics. It's not just a natural disaster, as much as we want to make it seem outside our pitiful, human control. This is a social and political crisis with profound implications. It's also when political will is not just a good idea, but a critical need.

It's time for good government and visionary leaders to step up and help all of us do the right thing. That's what government is for. Because Chris and Catherine could use some help in their efforts. Because public relations and education and media campaigns just ain't cutting it. All the information and studies we need are out there. But it's time to supplement the carrot of education with the substantive stick of new laws and mandatory conservation changes. It's time to throw some serious money and legislative chops at this.

"Our citizens need to realize that the days when water was plentiful and clean and cheap are over. They're gone," said City Councilman Eugene Brown, the one Durham leader who has led on this issue. "That's the harsh new reality and that's the premise we need to begin with."

Several environmental scientists have admitted they are terrified at what is happening. Many water managers and engineers aren't sleeping at night. I wish our leaders were as terrified, and equally willing to do something about it. The state of North Carolina is in a drought, but it's nothing new. We've been so since about 1998, although we were, ironically, rescued by hurricanes, like Floyd, in 1999 and tropical storms. Such merciful hurricanes, which allowed municipalities to delay dealing with the softer, slower, scarier problem everyone is still refusing to face. And by everyone, I don't mean some of the water managers and environmental engineers who are working around the clock, trying to stretch reservoir resources and work to change gray water laws. I mean the cities whose leaders decided to ignore the issue just after the 2002 drought broke. Rain, even in the form of hurricanes, soothes political souls and puts off proactive planning.

I'm on the fence about whether we need more Wayne Drops right now, although as a teacher, I suppose I should continue to honor the principle of education. But Gov. Mike Easley has been talking up a storm since April. In vain. He's sent out press releases. He's met with municipalities. But he has just a baby link, in tiny font off the home page of his Web site, "Water Conservation Tips." That's it. Let's not frighten out-of-state businesses with the reality: OH. MY. GOD. DROUGHT! And although Easley continues to claim that the drought is manageable through voluntary measures, he finally told reporters Dec. 12 that he might use his powers to cap water use in some towns. Then he went on to tell them about his plans to make state government run more efficiently. That drought thing? That's just all about talk. "He said Wednesday that he tries to mention the drought whenever he can," the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

Could we get beyond the mentioning and the modeling? I'm unsure whether I really need these images on my mind: Easley all lathered up before he turns the shower back on to rinse, or California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger walking in on his naked kids blissfully wasting water, and turning their showers off. Hasta la vista, body boundaries.

Instead of envisioning Easley in his shower, I'd like to see him get all lathered up in front of the legislature, the television cameras and the state, and say: Here's what I'm doing besides emulating good behavior for my fellow citizens. I'm going to act like a governor. I'm going to stop simply lecturing municipalities and citizens. I'm going to declare a state of emergency. I pledge not to spend more space on my home page detailing my friendly wager with the Governor of Delaware over the Appalachian State football championship than I do on the drought. And I don't care if somebody tells me I've cried wolf. I'm not running for re-election. Over the next year, let's lay in some infrastructure across the state, and get water systems hooked together wherever feasible. We're in this together. Let's change building codes and landscape regulations. Let's update gray water laws, and use treated wastewater whenever possible. Let's provide tax relief and free shower heads and rain barrels to any household in the state that wants them. Let's make businesses lead. Let's not just sit and listen to all the planners and environmental scientists and water experts across the state who have great ideas about what needs to happen; let's implement those ideas.

"We're getting real tired of pulling out the plans," says Gary Hunt, director of the N.C. Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance. His tone is patient, rather than angry. He's been to this movie. He and a number of other environmental grunts are working long, long hours on the drought. But of course, they worked long hours back in 2002. Until it rained, and local politicians found it expedient, once again, to ignore the problem.

"People ask the question, 'Is this global warming?' and we don't know," Hunt said. "Something is changing, and there are a lot of reasons. Maybe we're not a water-rich state anymore, and we may find out that this is the norm, rather than the exception. It's a little scary."

But, as Hunt noted, there are models out there, towns doing it right: Greensboro's tiered system is one of the best in the state, although water rate expert Jeff Hughes, director of the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, warns that tiering isn't the automatic answer for every municipality, and needs careful consideration. Cary has wonderful water reclamation projects. The little town of Tryon, just down the road from Hendersonville, looked at the drought in 2002, and then raised water rates substantially, bought water meters for every house, fixed its leaky pipes, engaged its citizens and businesses, and helped arrange payment for plumbers to fix the leaky toilets for homeowners who couldn't afford plumbers. Now the town is sitting pretty, carefully watching water continue to flow over the full dam of Lake Lanier.

"Good management is sort of invisible," says Tryon Town Manager Jim Fatland. His tone is modest.

More than two-thirds of the United States is suffering from drought, and available fresh water is dwindling. Stephen Chu, a Nobel laureate and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said to The New York Times about Northern California fresh water supplies: "There's a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster and that's in the best scenario."

I'm not going to wager on avoiding disaster here in the Southeast. When low-key scientists say, "It's a little scary," it's tempting to run for the hills. But there's even less moisture up there at the top of the watershed. Instead of running, what we should do is start demanding less of Wayne and more of ourselves. Above all, we need to demand more of our state and local leaders.

  • We are in deep silt, smack in the dry river bed of denial.

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