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The Broadening Bucket Brigade

by Christa Wagner

April 7,2008

Among the attributes not frequently assigned to North Carolina – a state celebrated as fertile and, to pick out the plants mentioned in the “Tar Heel Toast,” full of long leaf pines, soft southern moss, rhododendron and the peculiar scuppernong – are drought-stricken, dry as a dust bowl, desiccated. But arid may be the new order of the day as the state struggles to emerge from yet another drought. Reports show that the dry spell gripping the Southeast is the most severe on record.

So on March 25th, it was significant that the candidates running for North Carolina's highest office came together to discuss their ideas for the future of water policy in the state. (The Sierra Club, where I am a staff member, co-sponsored the forum.). Unlike the drought itself, this conversation about water law wasn't dry. In fact, as the only gubernatorial candidate forum to address in-depth an important area of environmental policy, it was – to find a different metaphor – a breath of fresh air. The speakers, Libertarian candidate Michael Munger, Democrats Richard Moore and Beverly Perdue and Republican Bob Orr, offered up a far-reaching and inventive list of changes to current state water regulations, as well as public educations plans and a veritable cupboard of carrots and sticks to entice better behavior from the state’s biggest water users.

A few weeks ago, Governor Easley introduced a sweeping package of reforms including new mandates for conservation and efficiency. The package of proposals is expected to be considered in the legislative session that starts in May.

But we're at the critical juncture where we can't let the ideas flow while the well runs dry. Conservation, clearly, is not just a drought response.

In North Carolina, it may be time to force developers, as Jerry Maguire's plucky client Rod Tidwell made memorable, to “Show me the water!” As the state's 600 some-odd water systems are modernized, will urban water management policies require long term proof of water availability before building permits are issued? Will cities put water cops on the beat? What about mandatory retrofitting of houses with lower flush and faucet volumes before they're resold? “Show me” bills have cropped up all over the U.S., but are relatively uncommon in the water-rich southeast. But new demands, and changing climate patterns here, suggest that this region will need to readjust its course.

New mandates like these will very likely find sympathy among the many North Carolina residents who are participating in voluntary measures now. From where I write in Durham, I can testify to the impressive number of restaurants that have stepped up to the plate and are no longer offering water to patrons unless asked. (Some places are making only bottled water available, which is a pity since bottled water uses as much as six times the amount of its contents in production and a great deal of energy to boot, according to some calculations.) Nearly everyone is trying to do their part, even if it’s a small step. As evidenced by the voluminous letters to the editor in our local papers, the bucket brigade is still out in full force, capturing overflow from dish duty and bathing water to douse outside plants.

Good ideas all – and they should not slow to a dribble even as the rains continue to pick up. The bright policy proposals that have been brought forward must be cemented in the next legislative session, while public support is high. Too many good ideas often end up down the drain – “inertiatives” that didn't take off when the moment was right.

It will be a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Though it’s too bad we can't turn off our water woes just by outsourcing the drought. Imported beer and straight whiskey are customs Carolinians might like to adopt. But then, there’s the notion often misattributed to Mark Twain, though he’d probably be sympathetic to the pickle we’re in. Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fightin’ over.

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