Elissa Yount: Water woes

This column will be the beginning of many columns on water.

You may think it is a boring subject, but lots of money, future economic development, health and safety, and many aspects of your everyday life are all caught up in water.

There are many problems about water that the city faces, and these problems need more than a cursory look and a blink. On August 19, 2010 there was a symposium on Kerr Lake Reservoir Water Resources. The city of Henderson did not have an elected official attend this meeting. Fortunately, the newspaper in South Hill did its usual excellent job of covering this and all water issues in the area.

Unfortunately, our local paper did not.

Christy Lipscomb, the chief operator at the Kerr Lake plant, did attend. However, since she is also the operator of the Clarksville, Virginia plant, she may have been attending in her other capacity. This is one problem that I see with the oversight of our water. It is my belief that our plant needs a full time operator devoted to the issues, problems, and resources of our region. There may be emergencies that would require attention at both plants at the same time. Likewise, extending a work week to include providing services at both plants is not wise for someone in such a demanding and exacting position.

Last year I was assured by a Henderson council member that this sharing of jobs was not going on. However, at the end of September, Clarksville’s municipal government confirmed that Christy Lipscomb was the Chief Water Operator for that city.

As a council person, I could not legally address this personnel concern in public. As a private citizen, I can. It is a bad practice, it could be an unsafe practice, and it needs to be corrected.

The Kerr Lake Regional Water System (KLRWS) is in the midst of applying for a permit to conduct inter-basin transfers (IBT) of water. This web site will inform you about this process if you are interested.

The information from the Symposium was not new. The permitting process for an IBT can take 3-5 years and will cost $1,000,000 and may be greater than $2 or $3 million. This is just for the permit to transfer water. In granting a permit, it must be crystal clear that the benefits out weigh the detriments. North Carolina’s IBT permit guidelines are the most stringent in the Southeast United States and the policy is intended to discourage IBT’s.

Let’s fast-forward to the KLRWS Advisory Board meeting on September 13, 2010. Again, no elected official other the mayor attended this meeting. (Councilman Inscoe could be excused as he had just become a grandfather.) On the agenda was the IBT.

Now let’s talk money and IBT. There is a Regional Water budget for this year that totals $645,000, and almost 80% of that has already been spent. It should be no surprise that over $358,000 has been spent for engineering.

There was some misinformation given at this meeting, namely that the permitting process for the IBT has only been going on for 18 months. This is not correct. Over seven years ago, the Henderson City Council was receiving information about IBT from the consulting engineers who had been hired by Henderson. At that time they were preparing a scoping document. The information presently in the hands of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) uses information from this very document.

How much money has already been spent on this permit? I made a request to the city to obtain this figure, but as of the end of September, the figures have not been presented. Why is this IBT important to us in Henderson?

The KLRWS can spend millions and still not get the permit. There are powerful forces that oppose the IBT. They are going to be looking closely at population growth, conservation of water, and water costs. In addition, Raleigh has asked for a chance to draw water from Kerr Lake. There is a real possibility they could go by way of Grassy Creek to get this water. If our IBT permit is based on Franklin County buying water from us, then we need to get a firm commitment. There are lots of balls in the air while the permitting process goes on, and we do not seem to be building consensus on this very important issue.

Most importantly, exactly who is in charge? When attendance at such important meetings is slack, and when Henderson does not have a representative on the Bi-State Commission, there is a real possibility that all the balls will fall at once, and there will be no one to catch them.

There is cause for worry.