Conservation funding on the rocks in state budget forecast
The state fund that helped conserve miles of riverfront, protect thousands of acres of undeveloped mountainsides and build countless sewer and water projects in Western North Carolina is hanging on by a thread.
Once funded at $100 million per year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has a bleak outlook. Governor Pat McCroy wants to cut the fund to $6.8 million next year and has made no promise of funds for the year after.
It would amount to a roughly 95 percent cut during the span of five years.
“It just doesn’t come close to meeting all the water quality issues out there,” said Richard Rogers, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. But he then added a touch of optimism. “We will say we’re glad he put us in the budget.”
The fund has been a go-to pool of money for conservation groups and local governments for water quality projects since 1996. The fund has saved thousands of acres from development in Western North Carolina, in turn protecting water quality of the streams and rivers. Money has been used to buy ecologically important tracts outright — which are then added to the state’s network of game lands, state parks or state forests. Other times, the money is an incentive for the owner of a tract to put the land in a conservation easement.
This year, the fund had only about $14 million to work with. Next year, if the governor’s proposed cuts go into effect, Rogers is wondering how he will divide such a small amount among $50 million in projects that have applied for funding.
He’s hoping the fund will be resuscitated in the final version of the budget. The N.C. Senate is expected to release its budget soon, and Rogers has been lobbying hard. Environmental groups are in his corner as well, calling on lawmakers to provide the fund at least $20 million.
“We understand the economy is tight, budgets are tight,” Rogers said. “But the economy is turning around, and it’s time we invest in the protection of our drinking water supplies.”
Changes in the fund have also resulted in changes in the way environmental groups are able to conduct business. At the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, Deputy Director Sharon Taylor said the organization once had a certain amount of certitude that it would receive assistance from the fund for projects it spearheaded. That is no longer the case. As the fund has been cut year after year since 2008, it has become harder to contribute to projects like it once could. In 2011, the legislature changed the way money was allocated to the fund. Instead of an automatic annual appropriation, it had to be funded as a line item each year, making the funding less secure and less predictable.
“Before there was more of an assurance that we were going to be able to get the funding,” Taylor said. “Now, there’s just not enough funding to go around.”
At the heart of the LTLT’s mission is protecting area waterways, which means the group and the fund have crossed paths on many projects during the years. The organization has worked on more than 30 projects that received grants from the fund.
One of the most recent is a 39-acre tract conserved along the Little Tennessee with the help of $160,000 from the trust fund. It will be turned over to the N.C. Wildlife Commission for inclusion in the Needmore Gamelands.
“It’s been superb in allowing us to protect the water quality along the Little Tennessee River,” Taylor said. “It really has done so much good in this area.”
And nobody believes that more than Bill Gibson. As former regional director with the Southwestern Commission, which provides assistance to local governments, Gibson worked on a series of watershed protection endeavors that permanently conserved thousands of acres with help from the fund.
As towns in WNC outgrew drinking water reservoirs fed by high mountain streams, and instead began drawing their water supply from larger rivers, decision makers were faced with the conundrum of what to do with the mountainsides where their old reservoirs were. The development boom of the mid-2000s meant lucrative offers were rolling in to buy the old watersheds from towns. Bryson City had an offer on the table for its watershed; Canton had been contacted by potential developers interested in purchasing lands on its 870-acre watershed.
“They were all under some threat of development,” Gibson said.
But instead, Gibson and other environmental advocates were able to use millions in dollars from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to help place a number of the watersheds in conservation easements — including Canton, Sylva, Bryson City, Andrews and Murphy. Some of the towns still use the lands to provide supplemental water.
But Gibson worries about all the potential land conservation WNC is missing out on because the fund is depleted. Now, in the wake of the housing market bust, it would be a prime time to purchase failed subdivisions along streams or with prime water resources.
“But there’s just no money to do it now,” Gibson said.
He also wondered where an infrastructure project like the sewer line built in Sylva to stop residents from straight-piping sewage into Scott’s Creek would be without the assistance it received from the fund. Or, in what condition Fontana Lake would be without the project to install holding tanks at the marinas to keep houseboats from flushing their toilets into the lake.
“The little bit of money left in the Clean Water Management Trust Fund wouldn’t touch a project like that,” Gibson said “There’s just not enough left.”
The trust fund used to receive $175 million or so in applications for funding but are down to $50 million in applications this year. Many would-be applicants realize it is not worth the time to go through with the timely application process if the outlook is not good for funding, according to Tom Massie, Clean Water’s western field representative based in Sylva.
“Many just decide not to submit because they don’t think their chances of being funded are good enough,” Massie said.
Before, about one-third of projects that applied received assistance from the fund. Now about 5 percent do, Massie said. The new competitive landscape puts smaller communities at a disadvantage, which can’t devote resources to top-notch applications and grant research.
Yet, those communities are in dire need of the fund to fix their wastewater treatment plants, address broken sewer lines, work on greenway projects and acquire land for hunting and fishing.
“It makes a significant difference to our communities in WNC,” Massie said.
What the fund does
Since 2006, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has contributed to a number of water quality projects in Western North Carolina. Millions of dollars have gone to help county and local governments with water and sewer projects and to purchase sensitive tracts of land to protect water quality.
• Preserved the Needmore and Cold Mountain Gamelands and the municipal watersheds of Canton, Waynesville, Sylva, and Bryson City.
• Assisted in stream restoration work in Haywood and Macon counties.
• Funded sewer improvements for Bryson City, Highlands and the Tuckaseigee Sewer and Water Association and eliminated failing septic tanks on Fontana Lake and in Jackson, Swain and Graham counties.
• Contributed to greenway projects in Franklin and Jackson County and storm water runoff projects in Waynesville, Sylva and Highlands.