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The official North Carolina emergency drought plan has the beauty of simplicity, if not feasibility. If the faucets in Durham, Raleigh or any city in North Carolina start to spit out non-potable water, this is what we'll do: Buy bottled water.

Thirsty? Dirty? Sorry. 

We've failed to adequately respond to the drought. The consequences may be dire.

click to enlarge Under Durham's emergency drought plan, residents will have to buy bottled - water for drinking, cooking and possibly bathing. Model: Jermaine Landon - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Under Durham's emergency drought plan, residents will have to buy bottled water for drinking, cooking and possibly bathing. Model: Jermaine Landon

Summertime, and the living's not easy. The fish are dying. The taps have run dry. The checkout lines at Food Lion are deep, and the waiting is longer. The pyramids of bottled water evaporate as people frantically load them into carts. The scenes are the same everywhere: Harris Teeter, Kroger, Wal-Mart.

The official North Carolina emergency drought plan has the beauty of simplicity, if not feasibility. If the faucets in Durham, Raleigh or any city in North Carolina start to spit out non-potable water, this is what we'll do: Buy bottled water. You might be able to score Aquafina or Dasani or Le Bleu, filled, ironically, with water from several North Carolina cities. That's if the grocery stores don't run out. They probably will, though.

The odds of this worst-case scenario happening depends on whom you ask, but increasingly, water experts are less sanguine. "It is highly unlikely the reservoirs are going to be full this spring," says Jerad Bales, director of U.S. Geological Survey's North Carolina Water Science Center. "Consider the scenario between now and when it starts heating up in May and June. Stream flows will in all likelihood be low, the ground-water system will almost certainly not have recovered enough to provide sustained base flows, and so with business as usual, the reservoirs will indeed fall rapidly."

Climatologists say there's just a 5 percent to 10 percent chance the reservoirs will recover over the next six months. We don't exactly know how much groundwater is available, but if stream flows are any indicator, there's not much—some North Carolina rivers are experiencing the lowest stream flows in recorded history—and state environmental agencies don't have the regulatory power to monitor who is pulling how much out of the ground.

In Durham and Raleigh, city councils and administrators appear either dazed or falsely optimistic about the chances North Carolina will rebound quickly from the drought. Thus, there is no plan in place spelling out the levels of rationing before the taps supply only non-potable water. And if rationing is possible, how does one ration, short of turning off the system?

"The logistics of this are very interesting," says Sydney Miller, water resources program manager for Triangle J Council of Governments. His tone is thoughtful. "If we get to the point of rationing, how would that actually be accomplished?"

Certain emergency services such as hospitals and fire protection require water to function. At a recent Orange County Sewer and Water Authority meeting, a representative from UNC Hospitals said, "Running out of water is not an option." The N.C. Forestry Division is forecasting more wildfires this summer. And if that's not enough, older portions of the water and sewer systems could collapse if there's not enough water pressure—like aging veins with no blood running through them.

Cities "should be thinking worst-case scenario and making a little effort to understand what they would have under that scenario," adds Jeff Hughes, director of the Environmental Finance Center at UNC.

The emergency plan is starting to develop, but inconsistently and mostly behind closed doors. The North Carolina Department of Emergency Services, depending on which official you ask, says that each person will need either one gallon or five gallons of bottled water per day to survive. (Federal Emergency Management Agency rules provide for one gallon; Durham Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees says five gallons.) If you want to bathe, you'll need more: According to the United Nations, each person requires about 13 gallons of potable water daily for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene.

At Lake Michie, a boat dock sits in the dry lake bed, now covered in grass. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

But whether one or five or 13 gallons, it'll be up to the market to mete. The state of North Carolina has signed a contract not to compete with retailers, and the Retail Merchants Association has assured the state that it'll fully stock its member markets.

How much water will our retail stores be able to provide? Steven A. Sloan, chief of logistics for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, had to demur. That number is withheld as "strategic information." Sloan was nonetheless able to honestly answer the question that should be on everyone's mind: "It's going to be extremely difficult to provide bottled water for everyone. Our focus is on the functionally fragile population.

"Only when the water on the shelf runs out can the state intervene," Sloan adds. Yes, only when there's no bottled water left on Wal-Mart's shelves can the city or state step in. And the state has stockpiled just 50,000 gallons of water in two warehouses. That will cover just one quarter of the population of Durham. For one day.

Meanwhile, Durham's repeated concern about poor people bearing the financial burden of tiered conservation rates seems quaint when you consider they may not have water at all. Durham, as Voorhees explained somewhat testily at a packed public forum Jan. 8, "is not going to be in the business" of helping provide water to citizens if the taps are turned off.

"I think there's enough infrastructure in the retail capacity of our marketplace to provide enough drinking water for folks to drink. Now if you want to take a bath, that's another matter."

But, when pressed at the meeting for additional details, he suggested that any further questions about the feasibility of providing citizens with sufficient amounts of bottled water be directed to the state or to FEMA. Which is going to be hard, since FEMA has thus far declined to become involved in drought crises. The only time in its history that it was willing to intervene in a drought was in Micronesia last March.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, was sitting in the audience, listening to the city's presentation. "'Let them drink bottled water.' That's what Voorhees is telling Durham residents," she said. "'We don't have any responsibility to conserve to prevent such a scenario, and we'll just throw you into a market where water's a thousand times more expensive when we run out.'"

Maybe more like 3,000 times more expensive, the estimated markup of the cost of Raleigh tap water—the same tap water used in Aquafina, produced by one of Raleigh's biggest municipal water users, Pepsi Bottling Ventures. Nothing like reverse osmosis to multiply the price. Pepsi, No. 1 in the bottled-water market, generated $2.17 billion nationwide in sales of Aquafina in 2006.

I don't want to just hype Aquafina here; other brands will be available, too. Like Coca-Cola's Dasani. That's Charlotte, not Raleigh, municipal water. With a bit of salt added for flavor. Or Le Bleu from Davie County. Le Bleu has also contracted with the state to provide water if the shelves of retail outlets are emptied out. Besides the big three, North Carolina has a total of 28 bottling plants, pulling out of municipal systems or out of the groundwater.

Raleigh, meanwhile, refuses to reveal exactly what amount Pepsi or their other largest users are pulling out of the municipal system—citing an exemption in the public records law. "The records you requested are enterprise billing records and not available to the public," wrote Raleigh City Attorney Thomas McCormick.

This is what it means to be in the water business: the conflict of interest between the notion of water as a public trust, and water as an enterprise, income for the city's wallet. Notes North Carolina Press Association General Counsel Amanda Martin: "We are in the middle of an extreme drought, and we are not even entitled to know which users are consuming inordinate amounts of water.  It's a travesty, if you ask me, but unfortunately it is the law."

At Lake Michie, a boat dock sits in the dry lake bed, now covered in grass. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

North Carolina, which has been drier-than-normal since 1998, should have been ready for an exceptional drought. Yet, Mayor Bill Bell told Durham citizens earlier this month, "Last January, no one could have predicted that we would have a drought so severe." With all due respect to the mayor, who is at least trying to start a firmer conversation about water conservation, that's utter nonsense. Durham was in its last major water crisis in December 2001, just as Bell was being sworn in his first term as mayor. On Jan. 5, 2002, Durham was just 17 days away from running out of premium water. Then it snowed a foot in early January, and finally rained and rained. So the city apparently decided not to do much after it won that particular round of water roulette.

"What the hell have we done since 2002?" asks Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown, who has grown increasingly frustrated with both Durham city administration and his fellow council members over the lack of concrete action in this crisis.

In terms of conservation planning, the city's not done much. So six years later, we are contending with another drought crisis.

Recently, local mayors have tried to emphasize increasing conservation, seemingly to little avail. Raleigh City Council tabled Mayor Charles Meeker's recent call for a surcharge on Jan. 22. And while Mayor Bell, to his credit, is finally trying to get up to speed, he's been tootling in the slow lane for months, if not years, on this issue. The Durham City Council mostly sits silent when the water crisis is raised, although some members occasionally roll their eyes or whisper to one other like junior high school students when councilmember Brown—the conscience of the city on this issue—tries to discuss it.

In Durham, "When the drought is over" is the wishful term de jour. A rare rain elicited scattered nervous clapping and cheery quips of "fingers crossed!" at a Durham city government retreat in mid-January. Durham, in a misbegotten parody of the self-esteem movement, also continues to congratulate its customers on how much they've conserved— 40 percent! Well, not so much. Even this math-challenged French major can decode the actual reductions: Durhamites have cut back a little less than 12 percent over the same time period last year, when we weren't in exceptional drought. That's pathetic, though typical when you simply ask people to be good citizens and save water. Durham claims the conservation is mandatory, but the city has issued a grand total of one fine for non-compliance.

"It's what we keep coming back to," says Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Michelle Nowlin. "It's a lack of leadership. This is one of the defining issues for our region. The thing that bothers me is that people are no longer leading; they're waiting around. This should be an issue in the gubernatorial campaign. It should be an issue for all the city council positions."

So Raleigh and Durham wait to institute stricter conservation measures, and don't even tackle the easy green measures that could nonetheless make both a short- and long-term difference: distributing significant numbers of free showerheads or offering major rebates on low-flow toilets. They resist calls for surcharges that might help conserve water, quietly worry about AAA bond ratings if they institute conservation plans, and publicly brag about how bigger pipes and higher dams and deeper dredging will keep us safe into the future.

However, not all area institutions are in slow motion. Duke University and Cree Industries in RTP, both big municipal water users, have been investing time and millions of dollars to reduce their water use, from low-flush toilets to water treatment. Durham County and GlaxoSmithKline are doing the same. Cree has reduced its water use by 50 percent since 2006, and expects to reduce it by a total of two-thirds in the next year, using both water recycling and condensation collection. Says Cree's director of investor relations Raiford Garrabrant, "It's important to our business to keep our factory operating."

A river doesn't run through it: The American Tobacco Campus in Durham - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

While these institutions have stepped up to the water table challenge, Durham has provided us with Wayne Drop, the skinny-legged, tear-dropped conservation mascot. The other night, he was standing there, nodding gently and handing out showerheads to the few citizens who attended the city council meeting. That's only, of course, if they brought their evil old showerheads with them.

"There's a big problem," said Bill Holman, senior fellow at Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "[Cities] are in the water sales business and this is a big change. They're being asked to change their corporate culture very rapidly ... without strong leadership, and it's very hard to do that."

And what about the future? Can we limp through the next year without resorting to the break-out-the-bottled-water scenario? Is this a mega-drought?

Probably not, climatologists and global warming experts say. We're in a dry period, but we'll get rain in the long run. Climate change models show a drier Southwest, a wetter Northeast—and an uncertain Southeast. Not necessarily a more parched Southeast. But certainly one that has more variable rainfall and hotter temperatures.

And more people. People will move here and raise families. Layering the effects of global warming on top of more people complicates the models.

"You don't have to invoke a thousand-year drought for us to act," says Rob Jackson of Duke University's Nicholas Chair of Global Environmental Change. "We need water for the people who are here, and we'll need more water for the people who are coming, and we'll need more water as the temperatures warm."

The long-term answer to this current drought does not lie in new reservoirs or bigger pipes or the strange and recent invocation by two gubernatorial candidates, Beverly Perdue and Fred Smith, of creating desalination plants as an answer to the drought.

We need to get past this crisis if we can, and learn to reduce our current profligate use of fresh water. We need to learn a brand new discipline: water stewardship. We need to take seriously the notion that bad stuff can happen quickly. In Europe, 32,000 people died in the heat wave of 2003.

In the meantime, Hughes and Miller continue to work on the medium- and long-term issues of conservation water rates and interconnections.

"I would urge Durham to start to educate the public," Hughes said. Clear information on water and sewer bills. A clear message that water costs will go up, and that customers will not necessarily be rewarded with lower bills when they lower their consumption.

Water conservation groups, like Clean Water for North Carolina, are calling for statewide plans and coordination, including a utility dedicated to the issue of conservation. Too many water utilities, say Hope Taylor and other water conservationists, are torn between making sure the city bills are paid and a conservation ethic that would take us in a more sustainable direction. Bills win.

"A totally new approach is needed to free up cities to choose conservation approaches instead of the new reservoirs and big pipes that will only increase their debt," Taylor says.

But whether our governments will wake from their trance in time to help stop this chancy game of water roulette is as unpredictable as the weather right now.

Even if your daddy's rich, and your mamma's good lookin'? That's not gonna' help those taps to flow.

For more drought stories, see "When short showers aren't enough" (Jan. 2), "Water wars" (Jan. 2), "Drought tolerance" (Dec. 19, 2007), "Lawn lovers, local officials ignore drought" (Oct. 10, 2007).

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