Searching for a Taller Glass of Water

“Water, water everywhere . . . .”  Except Cleveland County, that is.  And Cleveland’s attempt to increase its water supply is an ongoing effort (and battle) that I’ve been watching out of the corner of my eye for a few years. It’s not that I’m interested in Cleveland County.  It’s that Cleveland’s troubles are played out all over the world on a daily basis and are worth understanding.

Whether you’re discussing population growth or economic growth (two sides of one coin), two questions are necessarily raised.  One, do you have the transportation systems in place (or planned).  And two, do you have the necessary water supply in place (or planned).

For 13 years, the Cleveland County Water District, backed by local economic development professionals and business owners, has been trying to dam the First Broad River north of Shelby to create a 24-mile reservoir.  According to the Water District’s website, by year 2060 the county will need 8 million gallons per day (MGD) to meet average daily use and 11.5 MGD to meet peak use. But they only have 6 MGD capacity.

The arithmetic is compelling.

Opponents, on the other hand, are fighting to preserve the community character and the land and small farms that would be acquired (through condemnation, if necessary) to make way for the impoundment.  They are content with life as they know it and not so enthralled with life as economic boosters envision it to become.

The number of reservoir supporters increased in each of 2002 and 2008 when drought conditions challenged the district’s ability to supply water.  A raw water pump station in the First Broad River won’t work, supporters claim, because drought conditions reduce the flow to nothing.

The proposed reservoir is one of only two being planned in the state.  The last one to be completed – the Randleman Reservoir in the Triad – was opened in 2010 after decades of planning and political squabbling and legal battles.

Like a traveler in the desert, the less water you have the more it becomes your focus.  The comment that the “haves” and “have nots” of the 21st century will be determined by possession of adequate water instead of wealth is intuitively true even if, by now, a bit over-stated. The ultimate terrorist weapon is one that will leave a nation in tact but destroy its water supply.

I’m no stranger to water fights.  In the early nineties I represented the Town of Spruce Pine (McDowell County) that went bone dry twice during droughts in the 1980s.  After a long search for a new water supply, their best option was to construct a raw water intake in the Tow River across the county line in Avery County.  However, the relatively new water supply watershed laws meant that a new “critical area” would be created.  Despite the fact that silvicultural activities (tree and shrub farms) were exempted, Avery County went apoplectic that Spruce Pine would take actions that would create even hypothetical land restrictions, and they fought this intake all the way to the state Supreme Court.

We  won.

The skirmishes in the Cleveland County saga have been interesting to watch.  NCDENR decided to sit on the sidelines, angering the opponents.  The US Army Corps disqualified the water district’s consultant over a conflict of interest and has taken the position that there are less costly alternatives, angering the proponents.

Perhaps the most undiscussed (or unseen) elephant in the room is the unavoidable truth that the Cleveland Water District battle raises.  There is a point at which economic and population growth will eventually outstrip our state’s available resources. No, it probably won’t happen in this century, but as the decades pass the more we will be forced to discuss it and deal with it.

Postscript

You may wonder why today, of all days, I’ve written about the Cleveland water situation.

The answer is that I have a lot of interests and preoccupations that border on total nerdiness, and watching rainfall averages is one of them.  On any given day I can tell you the phase of the moon, the times of high and low tide on whatever coast I’m near, and the number of inches above or below the average annual rainfall for my region. Each day this month I watch to see if we’ll end 2013 as much as eight inches of rainfall above our annual average.  And this morning the precipitation tables got me thinking about places that are more susceptible to the effects of rainfall below the annual average.

A year from now, we could be eight inches below average.  So could Cleveland County.  But our new regional water supply was finished in 2010.

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