Water rights and wrongs

In August 2002 the First Broad River had turned to puddles. Only a small pond kept the City of Shelby from running out of water. City manager Grant Goings asked neighboring Kings Mountain for water, but Kings Mountain was already selling all it could spare to Bessemer City.

Goings, though, knew that Bessemer City’s water system was within a few hundred feet of Gastonia’s. So he called up Bessemer City’s manager and asked why they weren’t buying from Gastonia. The answer: Kings Mountain’s water was cheaper.

Goings sighed. He agreed to pay the difference if Bessemer City would connect with Gastonia so Shelby could hook up with Kings Mountain. Shelby hired workers to install temporary water pipes across three miles of countryside to Kings Mountain. Water came rushing to Shelby’s rescue just hours before the faucets would have run dry.

UNC researchers have been studying drought and problems with water quality, and they have some answers. But will we believe them, and will we act?

Fast forward five years, when North Carolina was in the grips of another drought. Hardest hit was Rocky Mount, which called on the City of Wilson for aid. The man who answered the call was Wilson’s new city manager—Grant Goings.

“I knew what Rocky Mount was about to go through,” Goings says. Thanks to water from Wilson and timely rain, Rocky Mount was spared.

Goings no longer worries about water supply. Now he worries about water quality.

Runoff from farms and cities is a major reason why some North Carolina waterways are in dire straits. Since the massive fish kills on the Neuse River in the 1990s, regulations have been in place, but are they good enough? Could sewage treatment plants be better? Have farmers improved their fertilizing practices enough?

And what about drought? Why did Rocky Mount nearly run dry, while Wilson was fine? Why did Shelby almost run out of water, while Kings Mountain had plenty to spare?

Liquid gold

Compared to other states, especially those in the Midwest that suffered through a record drought in 2012, North Carolina has access to a lot of water. Average annual rainfall is higher here than in most states.

“What we lack,” says UNC School of Government professor and water resources expert Richard Whisnant, “is adequate water storage, long-term planning and legal mechanisms to ensure water rights across a region when the next shortage arrives.”

North Carolina is a typical eastern state with no regional water authorities or enormous reservoirs. Not like in the West, where, out of necessity, water is moved over long distances and must be managed through regional decision-making and long-term planning. Nevada’s southeastern water authority, for example, has a 5-year plan, a 75-year plan, and access to the huge reservoir of Lake Mead.

“It’s priceless”

“They have a portfolio full of potential water sources,” Whisnant says. The authority has even floated the idea of taking water from the Mississippi and piping it across the Rockies to Las Vegas. Crazy as that sounds, it shows how Nevada thinks about water—it’s priceless.

The East’s localized control over smaller sources makes sense when you look at current demographics. But in 75 years? Already we’ve witnessed dozens of cities struggling to find water during droughts, while their neighbors fared just fine. A major reason is that most towns in North Carolina don’t even have reservoirs; they take water from rivers, which are more susceptible to low flows during droughts.

Lauren Patterson, who earned her doctorate from Carolina, researched historical flow rates while a graduate student in Carolina’s geography department and found that from 1930 to 1970, only one area, just northeast of Greensboro, experienced a significant decrease in stream flow. Between 1970 and 2008, though, more than 35 areas from Fayetteville west experienced significant stream flow decreases.

Since 1970, North Carolina’s average annual rainfall has remained the same. But the state’s population has doubled. A lot of that population growth has occurred at the headwaters of rivers. According to UNC environmental engineer Greg Characklis, municipalities have typically based their water needs on the historical record.

“But for some communities, the droughts of 2002 and 2007–08 were worse than anything on record,” Characklis says. “And that raises questions about climate change and whether the historical record is sufficient for planning decisions.”

Read more from the Endeavors article.

Published February 1, 2013.