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Plentiful water lulls consumers and utility managers regarding future water quantity issues

BOONE—Northwest North Carolina is the headwaters for eight major watersheds, supplying water to portions of five southern states. Despite droughts in Western North Carolina’s mountains in 2002 and 2007-08, the region’s water supply seemingly has been endless. That may be why so many water utility managers, elected officials, planners and even the public focus on the area’s supply-side management of water vs. demand-side management.

Kristan Cockerill, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural, Gender and Global Studies at Appalachian State University, is an environmental policy analyst. One of her areas of study is how perceptions and culture drive water management.

“Places that have a lot of water have historically been under studied. We haven’t paid much attention because we haven’t had to,” she said. “Water quantity is also very much understudied. A lot more research goes into protecting water quality than how we think about water quantity, how we get water, do we move it around and who gets to use it and for what propose.”

Cockerill has surveyed water managers and government leaders in Western North Carolina about their views on and data used to make decisions about water supply.

Hydrologists, water managers and consumers think about water supply in different ways, Cockerill said. “For the water utility person or elected official, water is about the infrastructure – can they get it from the river or the well to the people. In that case permitting, regulatory, structure and funding become limitations for them,” she said. “For the hydrologist, limitations are the physical environment, drought and climate change.”

Availability is the key concern for the consumer, Cockerill said. “The public wants to turn on the tap and have perfectly clean, potable water, 24/7,” she said. “The only time people pay attention to their water utility is when something goes wrong.”

Cockerill found that 35 percent of the decision makers in Northwest North Carolina who responded to her survey believed most people in their jurisdiction were not concerned about water quantity. Thirty-one percent expressed no concern about the potential impact of drought on water availability, and only half reported they were very concerned about a drought’s potential to reduce water supply.

“This is a place that historically has had a lot of water,” Cockerill said. “This idea of supply-side management, that we will just keep getting ‘new water as we need it’ is very prevalent. It’s a mindset.”

While 66 percent of the respondents said their jurisdiction had a drought plan and 62 percent had implemented water conservation measures in their community in the past, only 19 percent reported implementing educational campaigns related to water supply.

Less than a third of the respondents said their community or jurisdiction had initiated any scientific studies to better understand the physical characteristics, such as flow rate or recharge rate, of their water supply, while 62 percent had consulted population growth or development forecast data when considering the demand for water.

“I think we have a big issue,” Cockerill said. “It’s not just the decision makers in North Carolina. I think places that have had low population and high water have just not had to pay attention to it (supply) at all.”

Cockerill said that while per capita consumption of water has plateaued, the demand for access to water to produce electricity increases as the population grows. Steam-driven electricity production, which includes coal and nuclear plants, accounts for about 49 percent of water withdrawals in the United States.

“We have been fortunate that we have historically had high water supply,” Cockerill said. “I’m concerned that as our demands for water increase, not just here but as the major cities grow and more water is needed to produce electricity, we potentially are going to see more conflict over requests at the very least for moving water around.”

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