Water report

Randy Kabrick, OWASA’s board chair, may have thought that the upside of sitting through four hours of a Town Council meeting before he had to give his report Monday night might work in his favor. Council members might be too worn out to pay much attention. He could run through his PowerPoint slides and be home before midnight.

But tired as they were, council members didn’t slack off. Kabrick hadn’t gotten through the first slide before the first question came in, from Jim Ward, followed by Sally Greene, then Penny Rich.

Council members’ concerns seemed to center on OWASA’s practice of buying water from neighboring jurisdictions during anything short of a drought. Would residents get lax and resume their profligate water use of before the 2001 drought, and would OWASA be purchasing water that was not up to the quality we are used to?

Kabrick assured council that OWASA was continuing its efforts to educate consumers about conservation. “Conservation is the low-hanging fruit to increase our water supply,” he said. But residents have already changed their water-use habits with conservation in mind and reduced water use by 25 percent since the last drought. Future conservation efforts won’t yield such a dramatic reduction because, “you can’t get more blood from that turnip,” Kabrick said.

Buying water is more cost-effective than developing a new water source, and OWASA’s charter requires it to operate at the lowest cost possible while still maintaining service and supply. The plan allows OWASA to buy water to cover temporary shortages, such as when equipment breaks down, rather than declaring a water supply shortage first, which would require residents to forgo watering lawns and washing cars until the temporary emergency was over.

As for OWASA accepting sub-standard quality water, public affairs director Greg Feller wrote in a follow-up e-mail that he “[couldn’t] imagine a utility buying or selling water if it did not meet the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards.” (A little too p.r. occluded to be truly refreshing for my taste.) But Kabrick explained to council Monday night that the state is moving toward regional, river-basin water supply management. Rather than all jurisdictions sinking to the lowest common denominator of quality, the state was pressuring all areas to rise to the highest standard.

As the clock hands edged ever closer to midnight, Kabrick launched into an explanation of how regional allocation and demand regulations could avoid the sort of water wars that plagued Atlanta in recent years.
“We have an allocation of water, and we have to live within our water budget,” he said. “Running out of water is not an option.”
— Nancy Oates

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  1. Bill

     /  March 26, 2010

    I am glad to see we are going to a regional system. It makes the most sense. Buying water from OWASA is so expensive, it is also good to see some fiscal restraint being shown.

  2. Mark Marcoplos

     /  March 26, 2010

    There are still many opportunities to save water. We have in no way gotten all “the blood from a turnip”. This plan to buy water and shield citizens from the immediate effects of droughts is short-sighted.

    Also, OWASA is one of the best utilities in the country. The more regionalized it gets, the more we risk lowered standards in every facet of utility management. The future will bring great challenges in regard to water. We will be in a much more resilient position if we keep OWASA local and accountable to us and not the greater region.

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  March 26, 2010

    Regionalizing the water supply is just another growth promotion strategy. We need to be more proactive in managing growth so that we don’t extend our local population beyond what the local environment can provide.

  4. Nancy Oates

     /  March 26, 2010

    Population experts predict that the U.S. population will increase by 100 million over the next 40 years. That’s going to affect our area, too. We don’t have to build single-family houses for everyone, but we can’t close our doors completely, either. I was pleased to see water experts planning for water use 50 years out.

  5. Nancy, I disagree with your analysis.

    Terri is correct, this is a way of expanding development beyond the means of the community to support it.

    Living within OWASA’s already well-secured watershed will give Chapel Hill and Carrboro plenty room for growth while keeping our “footprint” of a size which is manageable in terms of financial resources, environmental impacts and quality of life.

    Drawing upon regional supplies in an “open-ended” fashion incurs a number of downsides: expanding bio-solid production even further beyond our capacity to deal with effectively, encouraging patterns of growth that our current and planned future infrastructure – roads, schools, etc. – can’t meet, reduces our self-reliance and ability to determine our community’s own direction, encumbers us more directly in the obligation to care for Jordan Lake’s water quality (a very big ticket $$$ item), etc.

    In other words, an open-ended approach to appropriating any resource brings with it additional consequences which culminate in an unsupportable community (at least unsupportable if you want a mix of folks of various backgrounds and income levels living here).

    Philosophically (?!), I remain troubled that our Town isn’t willing to discuss and plan within some kind of limits or constraints like water use. I also wonder, Nancy, where this “obligation” to absorb any level of population growth comes from. It’s a common trope the policy-makers use, but flies in the face of reality – there are limits to growth – including population (the deer kind of demonstrate that!) – and we should at least sketch out what those limits are, how we tell when we’ve reached them and how to deal with the consequences of exceeding them.

  6. Mark Marcoplos

     /  March 26, 2010

    We need to take the next step beyond “smart growth” and figure out what our population limit is based upon an understanding of our carrying capacity.

  7. Bill

     /  March 26, 2010

    Our water supply is not a social engineering tool, people!

    “Owasa is one of the best utilities” and yet “short sighted”? Huh?

    Using the water supply as some sort of tool to limit growth is a huge mistake. Local zoning laws are much better.

    So are all of you naysayers stating that you would rather have a catastophic failure of OWASA’s system (fire, pump failures, watershed pollution) put its service out of commission for a long time? What would you do if there were no water available for a month? Well?

    Once a little common sense is applied, it is obvious that OWASA is playing it smart and safe by interconnecting to other systems. It is called reliability, people! My oh my!

  8. Terri Buckner

     /  March 26, 2010

    Bill–this isn’t about reliability. The water situation is no different than the problems we are having in our schools. The county commissioners gave the school boards the authority to say that classrooms in a particular school are overcrowded and to deny new development as a result of that overcrowding. But it’s never been used because we build new schools whenever capacity starts to peak. But then we end up cutting important quality education features like 3rd grade teaching assistants because the tax base can’t support both quantity and quality.

    OWASA is proud of the water quality it provides. We lose that quality (and the security that comes from having clean drinking water supply sources) if we don’t know whether we’re drinking water from OWASA or from Jordan Lake. On top of that, monthly costs have gone up over 35% in the past 2 years. We can’t have affordability, quality, and unlimited quantity of either water or education (or libraries for that matter).

  9. Bill

     /  March 26, 2010

    Apples and oranges. This kind of twisted reasoning is truly disturbing. If the school system fails catastrophically, through budget or physical failure, the students go home and come back when everything is fine again. No one dies, no one gets hurt.

    The water supply, on the other hand, if interrupted, could literally kill all the patients at UNC Hospital, God forbid that ever happen.

    To be snobbish about OWASA water being “better” than other municipalities is nauseating and unfounded. Can you cite a statistic showing how many people have been harmed by drinking, e.g. Wake or Chatham municipal water systems? I already know the answer, don’t bother responding.

    Using the water supply as a social engineering tool is the most evil thing possible. And has the potential to actually cause harm by eliminating critical backup systems.

    The lack of common sense in some of the comments given here is really awful.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  March 26, 2010

    Look at the source of OWASA’s water supply. It’s not impacted by any major industry or large urban/suburban area. Unlike Raleigh, Cary or Durham, we’re not drinking treated waste water. That makes it better in my opinion.

  11. Bill

     /  March 26, 2010

    I am glad that OWASA does not agree with you.

  12. Mark Marcoplos

     /  March 27, 2010

    OWASA is interconnected now & will always be interconnected. So take a deep breath and rest easy. There will be water available in an emergency.

    Social engineering would be to authorize more connections and policies so that water can flow to areas that want more development regardless of the carrying capacity of their watersheds. This type of social engineering would be extremely reckless. The good news is that there remain huge opportunities for water conservation and new technologies are available that allow us to thrive economically without living in the out-moded profligate ways.

  13. Terri Buckner

     /  March 27, 2010

    Social engineering, at the community level, means attempting to influence behaviors and beliefs. The success of local governments and non-profits like OWASA in instituting recycling, water conservation, energy conservation, support for local farmers, shopping locally, giving to charitable organizations, participating in local government, transit usage, pedestrian safety, etc. have benefited individuals within this community and the community at large. In fact, democracy from its inception is the result of social engineering. You may not always agree with the targeted social engineering efforts, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as a manipulative tactic.