N.C. to consider changes to water withdrawal laws

Public forum Thursday in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- An overhaul of North Carolina's outdated water policies will begin with a meeting Thursday in parched Charlotte.

State legislators say it's time to revisit a loosely regulated system that doesn't reveal how much water is withdrawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers, or how much is available.

"We don't have any comprehensive system of surface-water withdrawals, and that cannot continue," said state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Charlotte, a co-chairman of the Environmental Review Commission, which will do the study.

Legislation passed in August, at the zenith of this year's drought, tells the commission to make a comprehensive study of water issues. Other Southeastern states, wilting under a second severe drought in five years, are doing the same.

South Carolina's General Assembly, which convenes next month, is expected to take up permits for large water users. The state is also negotiating with Georgia over rights to the Savannah River, which forms their border, and has sued North Carolina over use of the Catawba River.

The N.C. study will address regulating water withdrawals, transfers from one river basin to another and avoiding conflicts over interstate waters such as the current one between the Carolinas over the Catawba.

The commission is to report to legislators in 2009.

The Charlotte meeting is the first of five across the state to hear what study topics residents suggest.

N.C. rules say only that withdrawals of 100,000 gallons or more a day from surface or groundwater must be registered with the state. Local governments have to file periodic plans on their water use and future needs.

Permits are required only in 15 Eastern North Carolina counties, where groundwater has been pumped quicker than an aquifer can recover.

But many small water systems are not included because they fall short of the reporting threshold. Agricultural users are also exempt from reporting unless they use 1 million gallons a day.

"The first step is just to know who's using how much, both surface and groundwater, and we currently don't know that," said Bill Holman, a former state environment chief now at Duke University. "I think the legislature recognizes that the era of abundant and cheap water is over."

Holman, who co-wrote a recent Duke report on water strategies, is expected to advise the commission during the study.

The Catawba, which supplies most of the Charlotte region, might be the most intensively studied N.C. river. Even so, too little is known about the groundwater that feeds it.

Only three groundwater monitoring wells exist in the 225-mile basin -- too few, river manager Duke Energy says, to accurately gauge drought conditions.

The Environmental Review Commission will seek public opinions on topics its water study should cover. The meeting is from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday in Room 280 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.