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Clean Water for North Carolina Director Hope Taylor gives Durham a "D-" for its lackadaisical reaction to the drought.

When short showers aren't enough 

Click for larger image • Falls Lake in Raleigh, October 2007

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • Falls Lake in Raleigh, October 2007

Gov. Mike Easley's current bully pulpit cry that it is citizens' "patriotic duty" to turn down the taps has resulted in a paltry 11 percent drop in water use in the City of Durham over the same time last year. That falls a tad short of the goal of "Operation Halve It."

Yet, the city bravely insists that customers have cut back 36 percent—just as the governor ordered. "We're there at what the governor asked us to do," says Durham Water Management Deputy Director Vicki Westbrook. But the actual figures for water use for the two Decembers tell a different story. That shouldn't be too surprising: Most water experts agree that voluntary conservation doesn't work very well. Old habits die hard.

Click for larger image • Falls Lake in Raleigh, October 2007 - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Another effort apparently isn't working very well: the piecemeal approach to the worst statewide drought on record. As some municipalities rise to the challenge, others flail or simply avoid making the hard decisions that might help avert a crisis—not just over the coming months, but also into the predicted drier future when year-round conservation will be necessary.

The "supply side" approach, scrambling to tap new sources of water through piping and pumping, has dominated. But as for the "demand side," in which we're encouraged to use less and reuse more, one water expert notes: "We're failing."

That failure has some leaders and water experts saying Easley and the legislature should do more to lead and coordinate a statewide effort. The governor and his office have repeatedly said that short of declaring a state of emergency and launching public relations campaigns calling for conservation, his office has relatively little power. Later this month, Easley is convening the worst-off municipalities and water systems to review their status and to try to ensure they can supply water to their customers.

But local leaders and water experts say the state needs to spend more time and money on a regional approach to planning, conservation and sustainability—to say nothing of a coordinated public education campaign. Press releases and public service announcements, even with the cooperation of the media, aren't cutting it.

"I'm very concerned," said Durham County Commission Chair Ellen Reckhow, who wrote Easley last week, asking him to consider "a broader approach" to water management, including state funding assistance to work on regional planning. Large employers have approached her worried that no long-term solutions are being considered within Durham County. "I don't run the water utility," Reckhow said. "I can't make the decisions the city council needs to make, but we all need to work together."

Cooperating also means concrete structural changes and action at the state level, not only the municipal levels. Bill Holman, senior visiting fellow at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, says that despite the rhetoric that the governor's role is limited, there's a "whole host" of state actions—whether they originate from the governor's office or the legislature—critical for stabilizing North Carolina's water supplies into the future. And he doesn't see those steps currently being taken.

But decisive action is missing at the city level as well. While both Durham and Raleigh have toyed with the idea of tiered rates over the past month, neither has taken any concrete action. As of Saturday, only Durham Mayor Bill Bell and one long-concerned council member, Eugene Brown, have openly advocated for a tiered-rate system. And Brown has been the only forceful advocate for the issue. But Bell, who said Saturday he has not yet talked to the rest of the council about his actions, sent a memo to city management last week saying they needed to be "more aggressive" in their timeline to institute a tiered system.

It's not a simple shift if the city wants to make the system equitable, even if there is finally a consistent political will to do it. And one Durham council member, Mike Woodward, wrote in an e-mail that he disagreed Durham has avoided dealing with the drought. He said he has had numerous conversations about rate structures with staff, and that council sessions are too often used "for grandstanding or berating staff."

Council sessions should be used for setting policy. That hasn't occurred in Durham.

Most water experts say that a carefully calibrated tiered water system promotes year-round conservation and is one of the best ways to reduce water usage. A number of North Carolina municipalities, including Greensboro, put one in place in 2001; average household use in Greensboro has dropped by 25 percent.

But a tiered system is only one of the many issues that need addressing. Leaky pipes, according to a recent study, account for 14 percent loss of water in Durham. So Bell also promised on Saturday that the city would be moving to identify and triage the hemorrhaging offenders. Those are just two of many initiatives that Durham and other water systems need to implement, water experts say.

As Holman had pointed out to city council in a mid-November appearance and paper, "The greatest and most cost-effective source of 'new' water to sustain Durham's population, economic growth and environment in the 21st century is water efficiency."

Clean Water for North Carolina Director Hope Taylor, who on Thursday gave Durham a "D-" for its lackadaisical reaction to the drought, revised her grade slightly after hearing that Bell had sent a memo to staff asking for more aggressive action on both tiered rates and leaky pipes. "In just weeks, Durham could transform from being a poster child for a lagging drought response to a fine example for North Carolina's municipal water systems," she said.

Meanwhile, getting municipalities up to speed depends partly on the state: from better coordination among municipalities, to rewriting statewide building and plumbing codes, to tracking and regulating well water use statewide, to storm water management and gray water laws. Important information is lacking—for instance, how much water customers such as large utilities and agriculture pull from surface and ground water, Holman said.

Sydney Miller, water resources program manager for the Triangle J Council of Governments, is slightly more sympathetic to the notion that the governor is limited in what he can do.

"The governor and the state are flailing, trying to do what they can to help," he says. Nonetheless, an obvious step would be to throw some real money and celebrity power behind a statewide education campaign. Beyond the governor's press releases and a television station's willingness to run a public service announcement, there's no big budget behind the effort to do what really needs doing, he says. Hire a hero or celebrity who can look straight into the eyes of the North Carolina television viewer every single night, and ask him or her to do the right thing—take a short shower.

Westbrook, who has been struggling in Durham to educate the public, agrees. "The governor gets news release coverage and then it goes away," she says. "The area would be better served if there was more education coming from the state. People still don't seem to absorb that it's a crisis."

Perhaps that idea will finally start to sink in, as Durham grows ever closer to sucking muddy water from below the intake on its reservoirs.

Miller, who said he reserves the right to change his opinion in the next month, is cautiously optimistic—with some strong provisos, and the awareness that he'll provoke ire from landscapers.

"If we could do more on the conservation side, I think we'll make it through this coming spring and summer. If we start to get reasonable rain in the fall and winter, we'll be OK. But we're going to have to tell people that they're not going to irrigate in the spring and summer."

At least at this point, citizens still get to brush their teeth, even if they are told they need to turn the faucet off between rinses.

A public meeting about the drought is scheduled for Jan. 8, 6-8 p.m. Experts from Duke University, the City of Durham, and state, local and federal agencies will field questions from the public on the water crisis, global warming and Durham. The free event is at the Doris Duke Gardens Visitor Center, 418 Anderson St. For info: 613-8090, dukenvironment@nicholas.duke.edu.

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What a great article and summary of the water quality and quantity issues that everyone in the Triangle (and beyond) …

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Bravo! Thank you, Cat, for the best and most insightful commentary on this emerging crisis so far! The "Perfect Drought" …

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