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Water task force gives a glimpse of the future

Sometimes what at first seems utterly ridiculous turns out to be a foreshadowing. It’s happening with water use in this country, and we expect in the not-too-distant future this resource won’t be taken for granted as it is today.

The Jackson County Water Study Task Force is going to disband after studying the county’s troubling water situation and making some common sense recommendations. Those ideas — which are not suggestions for regulations since the task force has no authority — include installing water saving devices in homes, modifying ordinances to prevent stormwater runoff, and reusing wastewater for irrigation, to name a few.

Here’s what’s happening in Jackson County and elsewhere in the mountains. It seems many wells are going dry with increasing frequency in this ongoing drought. The task force members estimate that as many as 25 percent of all new wells are replacement water supplies. The wells on these properties have simply stopped producing or have been so depleted they are sending up just a trickle of water.

Americans — especially in the East and especially in the mountains — have never worried much about our water. But as more homes are built in rural areas, meaning more well pumps sucking up groundwater, the plethora of creeks and springs we see around us does not translate into a similar plethora of water in the underground aquifers. So while more and more people use water from the same aquifers, runoff from solid surfaces means less and less of the rain goes into the ground to recharge aquifers. More water use, less recharging of aquifers, and a drought all add up to a big problem.

It’s almost laughable when one looks at how much water Americans consume. According to the American Water Works Association, the average person uses 69 gallons of water a day. Showers, toilets and washing machines account for about 68 percent of that amount. The Jackson County Water Task Force found that, on average, residents hooked up to the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Association use 26 percent more than the average U.S. family.

At some point all this unregulated water use will change. Those who don’t believe that need only remember the stories of travelers — and this was into the late 1990s — returning from Europe or Third World countries who would come back laughing about how everyone overseas drank water out of bottles. “They’ll never be able sell water in the U.S.,” was the common refrain.

As it turns out, we will buy water from bottles, and lots of it. And towns with plentiful water supplies like Waynesville are now asking residents to voluntarily reduce usage. A bill discussed in last year’s General Assembly would have metered private wells to determine how much water is being used in households, presumably to consider affixing a tax or usage fee of some kind to those who use too much.

The only responsible option is to take advantage of available methods and reduce water use. Ask local leaders if they have plans for this looming problem. It’s much smarter to wean ourselves voluntarily rather than digging a deeper hole that will — sooner than later — lead to draconian government regulations.

Jackson ponders solutions to dry wells

A Jackson County task force appointed last fall to develop solutions to water shortages caused by the drought presented its recommendations last week.

The Water Study Task Force came about after several Jackson County residents reported that their wells and springs had run dry. About 58 percent of county residents rely on groundwater through wells and springs for their supply.

It is estimated that 20 to 25 percent of new wells being drilled in the county are to replace existing wells and springs that have gone dry, according to Task Force Chairman and County Commissioner Tom Massie. Massie presented the task force’s findings to a joint meeting of Jackson County commissioners and town boards within the county.

Massie believes the groundwater that feeds wells and springs is being compromised. Only about 25 percent of the rainfall ends up soaking into the ground and recharging groundwater levels, Massie said. To maximize groundwater recharge, runoff must be minimized, Massie said. He said the county currently has no ordinances dealing with stormwater runoff.

Regarding water supply in Jackson County, there are three things to consider — population growth, percent of population that uses groundwater and frequency of droughts.

Water must be conserved, Massie said, noting that Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority users are wasteful with their water, using 216 gallons a day on average, compared to 171 gallons used by the average U.S. household.

Up to one-third of daily water usage could be reduced with water-saving features such as low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, he said. Education is most important when it comes to conserving water, Massie said.

The task force, which sought short and long-term solutions, also recommends that the local governments collect data to get a better handle on the seriousness of the water shortage. Such data could be helpful during the next drought.

Though the task force does not advocate regulation, it could prove helpful. Potential regulations could include:

• Modifying the subdivision ordinance to require stormwater retention.

• Requiring water saving devices in building and plumbing codes.

• Reusing wastewater for irrigation.

The task force decided that the county and its municipalities would need about $20,000 to begin implementing the recommendations.

Massie recommended that the task force disband, saying its work is done. However, Massie said a Water Resources Advisory Board should be formed to meet regularly to oversee water issues in the future.

Task force seeks answers to water shortages

As a task force continues to probe solutions to the drought-induced water shortage in Jackson County, one idea on the table is passing out low-flow showerheads and aerators for the public to install on their faucets.

Task Force Chairman Tom Massie said despite all the rain lately the region remains in a drought, which is threatening the water supply, particularly of wells. According to the Health Department, 25 percent of the new well permits issued last year were for people who had wells or springs run dry.

The logitics of passing out water-saving devices would still have to be worked out, said Massie. The devices only cost around $4, he said.

Massie said he does not know if the water-saving devices can be given to the public for free. They could possibly be distributed when someone obtains a building permit, he said.

Using cisterns and rain gardens to collect storm water to use for irrigation can also conserve water, he said.

Short-term solutions from the task force are expected to be ready in March and presented to the county commissioners and towns in the county in March, Massie said.

The task force was formed in the fall after several residents reported that their wells had run dry due to the drought. Some were forced to move out of their homes.

The task force is scheduled to meet again Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. in Jackson County Courthouse.

Task force members have learned about the scientific side of the water cycle in a presentation by task force member Dr. Mark Lord, who is the department head of the Hydrogeology, Geomorphology and Soils Department at Western Carolina University.

The average Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority residential customer uses an average of 216 gallons of water per day — far more than the national average of 70 gallons, TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline. That means a household of three is using about 20,000 gallons of water per month.

Cline said anyone with a well should be concerned about it running dry.

Massie stressed the importance of educating the public about the importance of saving water.

Cline said TWASA customers are “wasteful” with water.

Massie emphasized that TWASA customers represent a small number of the county’s overall population. But the large volume of water TWASA customers are using begs the question of how much those on wells are using.

It is unclear how public education could be achieved, but Massie said it could possibly be communicated through county public service announcements.

The task force is composed of a representative from the county and each town in Jackson County as well representatives from WCU, the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority and Southwestern Community College

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