Will Wilson | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week
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Will Wilson 

Full Legal Name: William George Wilson
Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Will Wilson
Office Sought/District: Durham Soil and Water District Supervisor
Date of Birth: Aug. 14, 1960
Home Address: 16 Sunny Oak Pl, Durham NC 27712
Mailing Address (if different from home):
Campaign Web Site: None
Occupation & Employer: Assoc. Prof. Biology, Duke University
Home Phone: 919 383 2326
Work Phone: 919 451 6688
Email: willwilsn@gmail.com

1. Why are you seeking the office of Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor?

My interest stretches back to my central Minnesota farm background, and has grown with my academic work on urban environments and stormwater science. I presently serve on Durham's Farmland Protection Board (1st Vice Chair), Open Space and Trails Commission (past Chair), Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association's Water Management Committee, Interneighborhood Council, and Durham County Democratic Party (1st Vice Chair), a breadth of interactions that will greatly benefit my contributions to the Soil & Water board.

2. What are the most pressing natural resources issues in the county?

In the Jordan and Falls Lake watersheds, improving water quality in the face of past and future urban development. In the Little River and Lake Michie watersheds (that then flow into Falls), the need to preserve the City of Durham’s primary water supply means preserving agricultural and forestry land uses.

Relevant to S&W, a particular concern of mine is the installation of small stormwater control measures (such as rain gardens and planting trees) on rental properties in low-wealth neighborhoods. In these cases neither the property owner or month-to-month tenants can afford to spend money for environmental health benefits, yet these are the precise areas where the need is greatest but the solutions are most difficult.

3. How do you plan to address these issues? Please be specific.

First, the S&W board needs to continue the several programs that help farmers pay for installations from which city residents benefit. Second, I will contribute to the ongoing educational programs the district undertakes. Third, through my present service to other groups, I will further promote the program that helps fund environment-friendly practices on urban and suburban lots, and develop a strategy to apply these practices on the above-mentioned rental properties.

4. Identify examples of how the district can best balance agricultural/rural and urban interests in regards to soil and water conservation.

The City of Durham gets most of its water from the Little River and Lake Michie reservoirs, and preserving agricultural and forestry land in those watersheds is a cost-effective move. Durham’s agriculture doesn’t cause problems like that in the midwestern states, and any harms are far less than the problems of urban land use. The city’s reliance on these watersheds means the interests of Durham’s farmers and city-folk are completely aligned: suburban development in these watersheds harms both groups’ interests.

The tougher balance comes between the urban stormwater problems that the City of Durham causes to our Wake County neighbors — the folks that primarily use the Jordan and Falls Lake reservoirs. S&W has limited funds to improve the situation, but is working in that direction.

5. How should economic incentives be used to protect the area’s natural resources? What are the financial resources for these incentives?

As a member of the Farm Board, I’ve learned that property taxes coming from urban lots doesn’t quite cover the cost of services provided (fire, police, sewer, etc), but farmers pay property taxes that exceed their cost of services. That means Durham’s farmers are subsidizing the rest of us, and, while setting property taxes is outside the purview of the S&W district, making sure urban and suburban residents understand that situation would help.

There presently exist county funds for open space and farmland preservation, used to leverage state and federal funds, and we should at least continue those county-level financial resources. However, that money is not administered through S&W.

6. Land use policy impacts the quality and quantity of our natural resources. How should the conservation district work with planning and zoning departments to protect the area’s soil and water from urban runoff?

First, our regulatory recognition of stormwater as a problem is quite new. The first regulations came in 1987, then another set in 1999. By then a great deal of urbanization had taken place, and the backbone of stormwater pipes existed. Much of the philosophy behind our planning and zoning remains based on a get-rid-of-stormwater-as-fast-as-you-can mindset. So the starting point begins with a serious challenge. There’s also opposition to the additional costs and needs for low impact new development and the retrofits associated with urban redevelopment. I think many more citizens will need to step up and demand a new way of doing things if we want to correct stormwater problems. I’ll help make those appeals.

7. What are the pros and cons of voluntary and mandatory conservation programs? Which do you think is more effective and why?

Here’s a scenario. Wide stream buffers greatly improve water quality, but a farmer in northern Durham bears the cost of taking land out of production for these buffers while the benefits go to city residents as increased water quality. Is it fair that we expect the farmer to voluntarily cut his/her income when he/she already subsidizes city services through property taxes as described above? If the city, county, state, or federal government mandates the buffers without payment, is disgruntlement in the agricultural community a surprise? The added cost and frustration might cause the farmer to sell to a developer, lowering water quality much more than the hoped-for gain through increased buffers.

In fact, we have voluntary programs that help pay for buffers and place some critical lands in long-term conservation. Voluntary approaches are the best options, and keeping them voluntary means the costs and benefits to all parties are appropriately balanced.

8. What, if any, permanent water conservation measures should be implemented in Durham County? What usage goal, in gallons per day, should be set for residential customers? Industrial/ commercial customers? How can the county achieve these reduction goals?

S&W’s main interest is getting clean water into the reservoirs, and this question sits outside the scope of S&W. It’s a sustainability concern for the allocated users of the reservoirs. However, S&W can and does assist in conservation practices that help in the midst of droughts like promoting rain barrels, groundwater recharge, and drought-tolerant landscaping.

9. Many Durham County residents rely on groundwater and domestic wells for their drinking water. How should the county address the quantity and quality needs of those customers? What is the district’s role in protecting the quality in Falls Lake and Jordan Lake?

On an annual basis, each of us uses about 3 acre-inches of water, so a family of four living on a country acre with a well uses about a foot of water, compared to about 3 feet of rain each year. Withdrawals aren’t excessive, and I don’t think we have an imminent groundwater quantity concern. S&W’s primary role would be promoting aquifer recharge through conservation. I’m more concerned about quality, and that can be promoted by education surrounding the proper disposal of waste chemicals and automotive fluids.

Ill-placed dense developments with heavy groundwater demands combined with too much imperviousness certainly works against nearby groundwater users, but again S&W doesn’t have a regulatory role.

10. What is your stance on fracking? If fracking does happen in Durham County, what is the district’s role in protecting farmland, water quality and other natural resources? What is the district’s relationship with DENR on this point?

Just in the last decade, hydraulic fracturing disrupted our entire fossil fuel picture, more than halving our national petroleum imports. Many of us directly heat our homes with the natural gas that comes from the hydraulic fracturing of thick shale reserves covering entire states in the northeast, most of Texas, and the area from North Dakota to Colorado, not to mention Saskatchewan and Alberta. We also indirectly use natural gas through the electricity generated from new natural gas power plants. The technology also reopened closed oil wells and reinvigorated US crude oil refining that uses natural gas for “cracking” hydrocarbons. All of these anticipated future carbon emissions should worry us with respect to climate change, and make more critical a rapid transition to renewables. North Carolina concerns arise from a sliver of shale extending through southwestern Granville County, southeastern Durham County, on down to Lee and Moore counties where nearly all of the action is taking place.

Given these realities, many of us expect tough, enforced regulations on drilling the wells, and handling the chemicals and wastes used in the process to protect the environment in those locations. I worry that the legislature appears intent on placing the exploration and environmental costs onto the citizens of North Carolina, and that the environmental standards will be too weak to protect surface and groundwater in the area.

I highly doubt that fracking will come to Durham County. Most of Durham’s shale sits under urban areas and Falls Lake, and the shale is probably very thin. There is too little there, too much opposition, and too much shale elsewhere around the country. In any event, Durham’s S&W board will not have a say in the setting of any regulations.

11. Evaluate the effectiveness of the Farm Protection Program. What are the successes and challenges of that program? How do you suggest that it be improved?

As a member of the farm board involved with the Farmland Protection Program, I know it’s been quite effective. The program leverages county money to obtain state and federal money, along with landowner donations, to place conservation easements on Durham farmland. Essentially, it buys the development rights from the present landowner by placing a restriction on the deed. Future landowners buy the property well-aware of the restrictions: they must farm the land, and cannot sell it for development.

It’s effectiveness hinges on state and federal money available for matching funds. State money through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has essentially dried up, and the allocation of the federal money through the new farm bill isn’t clear. As a county, we just have to keep allocating resources and letting our excellent open space staff leverage them as much as possible.

12. What funding issues are facing the Soil and Water District? How do you propose to ensure the district receives full funding? Are there alternative funding sources the district could explore? If so, what are they?

We have a great staff that competes well for funds at the state level. I worry about the state’s commitment for funding clean water programs, but Durham’s situation is an interesting mix of mutually dependent urban and rural folks. There’s an opportunity that Durhamites could greatly benefit by cooperation between city and county stormwater departments and the S&W district. Durham has to be prepared for 10 inch rainfalls when a hurricane stalls out over the city, but there’s really little excuse for any flashy runoff with a quarter-inch rainfall. S&W has the expertise to help with the latter concern, but we need a cooperative approach.

  • Durham Soil and Water District Supervisor

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