N.C. water transfer law goes into effect

RALEIGH, N.C. -- N.C. approval to pipe water from one river basin to another, which ignited an ongoing water war in the Charlotte region, will be harder to win under a new law that went into effect last week.

The legislation grew out of the quest by Concord, N.C., and Kannapolis, N.C., in the water-short Rocky River basin, for water from the Catawba and Yadkin rivers. A state environmental board in January granted the cities 10 million gallons a day from each river, but only over objections from opponents who felt unfairly treated.

Gov. Mike Easley signed a new approach into law on Friday. It will change how future transfer requests are decided and could have special impact in the Charlotte region, where fast growth is likely to strain water supplies.

Seventeen municipalities in the Catawba basin are still challenging the Concord-Kannapolis approval before a state administrative court. The cities say they weren't given proper notice of the request nor allowed to fully respond to it.

South Carolina, which fears too little water will be left flowing across its border, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block future transfers until a water-sharing mechanism is established between the two states.

The new N.C. procedure requires earlier and broader public notice of future requests. It allows for a mediator to try to resolve differences. It gives the public a chance to respond to proposed decisions before they're final.

"It brings everyone into the process from the very beginning," said Mike Bennett, assistant to the city manager in Hickory, N.C., a community on the Catawba. "It defines the process more clearly, defines what groups need to receive notification and allows all involved to speak about possible impacts or benefits."

The bill gives the future water needs of the basin from which water would be piped greater priority than those of the receiving basin. It also spells out more clearly the standards that a request must meet. They have to prove, for example, that they really need more water, have no alternatives and won't misuse what they're given.

"The burden of proof is going to be more difficult," said Tom Fransen, river basins section chief for the N.C. Division of Water Resources. "How much more difficult, until we actually go through one, may be hard to say."

It took Concord-Kannapolis six years, under the old rules, to win about half the amount of water the cities originally wanted. That laborious process, coupled with the new requirements, may dissuade local governments from seeking transfers, Fransen said.

Union County, N.C., is trying to avoid the need for a basin transfer to boost its water supplies. County commissioners agreed Aug. 20 to pursue working with neighboring Anson County to draw water from the Pee Dee River, a move that wouldn't need a basin-to-basin permit.

The Concord-Kannapolis permit could indirectly shape how the state regulates basin transfers.

The Supreme Court is not expected to decide whether to review the S.C. challenge until this fall. North Carolina argues that renewal of Duke Energy's license to manage the Catawba will determine the amount of water flowing south of the border.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, in addition, is challenging the environmental analysis that supported the Concord-Kannapolis decision.

The new law recognizes that communities upstream and downstream of where the water is removed can also be affected by basin transfers, said Michelle Nowlin of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the foundation.

But Nowlin said the changes still don't ensure that aquatic life, such as fish and mussels, would be protected when a transfer is approved. "You can follow all the procedures," she said, "and still have a bad outcome."