Click to read photo caption. Photo by Keith J. Shipman.

In early August 2002, a city water manager near Statesville, North Carolina, walked out of church and noticed something unusual. The South Yadkin River was only inches deep and so narrow that he could jump across it in his Sunday clothes.

The next day, the river was gone. Water managers were stunned; they had never heard of a river disappearing overnight. Pilots flew along the dry riverbed in search of the water. But the city never figured out where it went.

North Carolina has long been considered rich in water. But in just the last ten years, the state has suffered two droughts that have forced cities across North Carolina to implement ever-increasing water restrictions. Unlike in the West, where water is seen as a precious resource in short supply, institutions, businesses, and residents in the Southeast are unprepared to deal with recurring water scarcity.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Many local politicians seem to view the record-setting drought of 2007–2008 as a problem to be solved by heavy rains. “You have a lot of people who see drought as a short-term issue,” says Richard Whisnant, an expert in water resources law. “In their view, as soon as it’s over — which could be any day now — we’ll be back to business as usual.”

But even when the drought ends, the problem of future water scarcity in the state will remain. The reason is the double whammy of climate change and a rapidly growing population.

Climatologists predict that global warming will result in a hotter southeastern United States, with more frequent heavy storms but also more droughts. Mix in high demand for water from a public that doesn’t yet understand the need to conserve, and it’s a recipe for trouble.

Signs of water scarcity have already appeared throughout the state. In 2005 the growing cities of Concord and Kannapolis sparked a water war with counties to the west when they asked to pipe water from the Catawba and Yadkin Rivers to their own Rocky River. Last summer, South Carolina sued North Carolina, arguing that the transfer of water will leave the Catawba dry, harming electricity generation, river recreation, and the state’s economy. The case is pending with the U.S. Supreme Court. In February drought-stricken Raleigh began fining people $1,000 for using water outdoors. And last fall Rocky Mount nearly ran out of water before Wilson agreed to pipe it to the thirsty city.

The problem is one of supply and demand. The state’s population is just over eight million, already enough to strain water supplies during droughts. By 2030 these same water resources will have to slake the thirst of a projected population of twelve million.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Population growth not only means more people — and more lawns — competing for the same water supply. It also deteriorates water quality, especially when growth is sprawling. “This state has been sprawling at an unbelievable rate, but there’s no leadership on planning,” says Philip Berke, professor of city and regional planning.

More impervious surfaces — such as roads, parking lots, and driveways — cause more runoff of pollutants into drinking water supplies. Stormwater runoff occurs when rainfall on the ground picks up contaminants such as fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from residential yards and farms; oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from urban and residential areas; and sediment from construction sites. The runoff then carries those contaminants into waterways. As a result, the state is struggling to curb algae growth from excess nutrients in many major reservoirs, including Falls Lake, Raleigh’s main water supply.

And while building new reservoirs may seem like a long-term solution to water shortages, that’s unlikely to happen on a large scale. Reservoirs are very costly, take twenty to thirty years from planning to completion, and also raise environmental concerns because they destroy wild habitat.

Water supply is only half of the problem. The other is excessive demand for water for nonessential uses such as green lawns. In 2007, the driest year the state recorded in 118 years, North Carolina received on average 34 inches of rain. That’s more rainfall than half the country receives in a typical year. If the state’s water policy and systems were restructured to better regulate the use of water, there would be enough to go around, Whisnant says.

We tend to throw away, or use carelessly, what we don’t value. “We take water for granted because there’s historically been so much of it in the East,” Whisnant says.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Martin Doyle, an expert on rivers, refers to the diamond-water paradox. Although water is essential for life, and diamonds have no practical use, people pay exorbitant sums for diamonds and almost nothing for water. “The last thing you need in your day-to-day life is a diamond,” Doyle says. “In the end you absolutely have to have water. It’s worth any price when you’re at the end of it.”

How cheap is local water? In North Carolina the median charge per gallon of water for a customer using 6,000 gallons per month is four-tenths of a cent, according to a report from UNC’s Environmental Finance Center. If you buy that same gallon of water at a major grocery store, they’ll charge you about $1, or 250 times more. For a 20-ounce bottle of water from a vending machine, you’ll pay $1.25, or 2,000 times more.

Here’s another way of looking at it. For the price of a Starbucks latte, you could buy 855 gallons of water. For 5 bucks, you could buy a 6-pack of beer or 1,250 gallons of water. “We want people to conserve, but there’s no reason to conserve if you’re charging them a distorted price for water,” Doyle says.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Greg Characklis, a specialist in environmental engineering and economics, says, “One way to encourage conservation is to raise the price. But politically, that’s not a popular option.” Indeed, most water utilities have prided themselves on delivering water at the lowest possible price.

“There are ways of pricing water so you’re not imposing serious hardship on folks without the means to pay for it,” Characklis says. For example, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority of Chapel Hill and Carrboro (OWASA) encourages conservation through a tiered pricing structure, with rates that increase sharply once a household uses more than the average amount of water.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Another issue with North Carolina water policy is the right to tap into water resources. North Carolina, like most eastern states, has what is known as a regulated riparian approach to the ownership of water. Basically, that means that if you own property alongside water, you have the right to use that water. David Moreau, director of the Water Resources Research Institute, likens state water law to the big straw theory: “You can get whatever you can suck out.”

North Carolinians are accustomed to ample water, and the state has placed few restrictions on access. If you own land and want to build a car wash, or a water bottling plant, or a power plant, you get a permit to put an intake pipe into a river or stream and you’re free to draw hundreds of thousands — even millions — of gallons of water.

For example, Duke Energy has proposed building a coal-fired power plant at Cliffside on the Broad River, while Progress Energy just announced proposals to build two nuclear reactors on the Cape Fear River. “Neither one of those is going to require any kind of permit to withdraw water, despite the fact that the amounts of water they will withdraw are enormous,” Whisnant says.

State legislators have enacted a few water laws, but the state has rarely attempted to use them to regulate water use, Moreau says. One law allows the state to create “capacity use areas,” or areas in which it considers water to be scarce. That designation allows for greater government regulation and coordination of water use. The only part of the state that the Environmental Management Commission has designated a capacity use area is a fifteen-county region on the Central Coastal Plain, east of Greenville and New Bern. Several cities and a large phosphate mine have pumped out large amounts of groundwater from the counties’ aquifers, placing them at risk of intrusion of saltwater and permanent damage to their water storage capacity.

Historically, local governments have been responsible for public water supplies in North Carolina. They are responsible for everything from building reservoirs to treating wastewater to developing plans for drought response.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

But some experts now say that North Carolina — and many other southeastern states — have outgrown the old, localized approach to water supply. Looking at water supply from the community level doesn’t work anymore, says Francis DiGiano, professor of environmental sciences and engineering. “That community depends on water from somewhere else, and discharges water somewhere else,” he says.

Carolina researchers in a number of disciplines are working on solutions to the state’s water problems. Some are looking at helping cities respond to the current drought by analyzing ways to add to the water supply or ways to help local governments prepare to enact tougher conservation measures. Some want to analyze options to inform the coming debate on water policy. Others have more far-reaching ideas, such as figuring out how to reuse wastewater for irrigation and toilet flushing, or changing the way we plan and build new neighborhoods.

To assist local governments in responding to the drought, Moreau has analyzed the success of several water-conservation initiatives. He’s also been trying to help politicians understand the need for stricter water-conservation measures. “None of the cities are prepared to go beyond cutting off outdoor water use, and making public appeals for people to limit use of water,” Moreau says. “That has limited effect.”

Last fall Governor Mike Easley called for citizens to reduce water use by 50 percent. But even the cities doing the best in conserving water haven’t achieved more than a 20 percent reduction, Moreau says. What if the drought continues and communities really need to cut water use by 50 percent? “It’s a problem no one wants to talk about,” he says.

In the short term, some cities are considering connecting pipes to tap into the water supplies of nearby communities that have more water. Characklis has been analyzing the feasibility and cost of options for allowing Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro to get access to the water supply in Jordan Lake. The town of Cary would treat the water before piping it to those cities.

Whisnant expects to spend the next year or more developing policy options to help state legislators considering changes to water policy. Although it’s too early to predict what policy changes may occur, Whisnant expects legislators to consider requiring a permit before major users of water tap into public water supplies. “We’re different from other states in not having any way to regulate how much water somebody’s withdrawing,” he says.

To encourage public debate and a deeper understanding of our state’s water issues, Whisnant and Bill Holman of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions created a water wiki.

With an eye to the future, engineers and architects have ideas about how to better use existing water supplies. The challenge will be winning public acceptance, they say.

Water reuse is one such idea. Communities use treated drinking water to fight fires, to cool water in power plants, to flush toilets, and to irrigate lawns, golf courses, and public spaces. But to save water, future communities could install dual water systems that separate water for use in drinking and washing from water for other uses that don’t require such high quality, DiGiano says (see “Reclaiming Water at Carolina North”). In a process known as water reclamation, communities would treat wastewater to a high level and use it for nonpotable purposes such as irrigation and toilet flushing. If communities used reclaimed water, they could save up to 50 percent of the demand for fresh water supplies, DiGiano says.

UNC has developed a reclaimed-water system in partnership with OWASA that will save an estimated 210 million gallons of water per year. Beginning in March 2009 Carolina will use treated wastewater in the cooling towers at four chilled-water production plants that provide air conditioning on the main campus. The cooling towers are the largest consumers of water on campus. Eventually the university may use reclaimed water in landscaping and to irrigate athletic fields.

The biggest barrier to implementing water reuse is public skepticism. Opponents of the idea raise concerns about people coming into contact with water and being exposed to microbes. Such risk is very low if the reuse system is engineered and managed properly, DiGiano says. A study by Mark Sobsey, an expert in environmental microbiology, concluded that the level of pathogens in OWASA’s reclaimed wastewater would be negligible and that exposure would be unlikely. People who are not accustomed to the idea of water reuse tend to fear it. But people who live in cities downstream from major rivers, such as Washington, DC, and Wilmington, North Carolina, already experience the de facto reuse of water, DiGiano says. They drink water that has been excreted and treated many times before it reaches them.

Carolina water by the numbers

  • Gallons saved per year by installing dual-flush toilet valves in campus buildings: 460,000
  • Gallons saved per year by discontinuing irrigation of campus landscape: 12 million
  • Gallons to be saved per year when UNC begins using reclaimed wastewater in cooling towers in 2009: 210 million
  • Average number of gallons used per day by students in UNC dorms before the start of a water conservation competition with NC State: 34
  • Average at the end of the conservation competition: 20
  • Percentage of Orange County, North Carolina water used by UNC-Chapel Hill: 30

Architects also see the potential to save water — and preserve water quality — if we change the way we design our cities. Creating compact urban centers instead of suburban sprawl may be one answer, Berke says.

One local example is Southern Village on the outskirts of Chapel Hill. That development features a core of businesses and shops intermixed with residences at higher densities than in typical suburban areas. Because people can walk to restaurants and shops, the development needs fewer large parking lots, Berke says. And since residences are close together, streets can be shorter. Less pavement equals less water runoff and pollution during rains. Denser developments also allow planners more opportunity to protect open spaces, Berke says. By avoiding sprawl, communities can protect sensitive lands, such as wetlands and land adjacent to streams, that buffer watersheds from pollutants.

Doyle’s research on water quality dovetails with Berke’s work. Doyle’s geography students are collecting water samples from different parts of Jordan Lake, with the aim of analyzing how different types of land use affect the lake’s water quality. In conjunction with the Department of City and Regional Planning, Doyle is projecting where people are likely to move to and what types of neighborhoods they are likely to build. Then he will estimate the impact of those developments on water quality in the lake. Doyle hopes to figure out how to offset the effects of development on water quality by reducing pollutants elsewhere in the watershed.

North Carolina policymakers have expressed interest in expanding the use of water-quality markets, in which large polluters of waterways pay someone else in the same watershed to decrease their own contaminants so that there is no net gain in water pollution, Doyle says.

Solutions to water scarcity, such as policy reform, water engineering, and city planning, all face the same big barrier: the status quo. But whether we like it or not, the period of abundant water in the Southeast appears to be over. “Water is not an infinitely available resource,” Characklis says. “What have traditionally been very abundant supplies are not going to be so in the future if we continue to develop as we have been. We’re going to have to come up with better systems for managing this resource.”

Sheila Read was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Richard Whisnant is a professor of public law and government in Carolina’s School of Government. Philip Berke is a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and director of the Center for Sustainable Community Design. Martin Doyle is an assistant professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Center for Landscape Change. Greg Characklis is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. David Moreau is a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and director of the Water Resources Research Institute. Francis DiGiano is a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Mark Sobsey is a Distinguished Kenan Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering.