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Assistant Dean Richard Schneider blasts North Carolina lawmakers for not protecting water quality in Charlotte Observer op-ed

If you ever saw “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day Lewis, then you watched a magnificent waterfall scene filmed in North Carolina. Our water resources draw not only cinema but a large economy focused on tourism and recreation. Of course, we also need water to drink and for other practical uses. In short, water is one of our most precious resources whether in the mountains, the Piedmont, Down East, or on the coast.

It is a never-ending struggle, however, to clean up that water and maintain it in a condition we call fishable, swimmable and drinkable. For that we need laws and state muscle to enforce those laws. Unfortunately, in North Carolina our water is now under assault by more than just unwise use. It is being attacked as well by lawmakers in Raleigh and our state agency charged with protecting that very resource.

Here are three examples of recent actions by lawmakers in Raleigh that will degrade our water quality. More than 300,000 people in the Triangle depend on Jordan Lake for drinking water. It took years to develop a strategy to reduce the amount of excess nutrients flowing into Jordan Lake and it took the General Assembly less than a year to attack those rules and delay their implementation. Second, lawmakers have worked hard to open North Carolina to fracking, a natural gas drilling technique that not only uses extreme amounts of water but also is suspected of poisoning groundwater. Third, in 2013 the General Assembly enacted a regulatory reform act that merged the Division of Water Quality in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with the Division of Water Resources. This may seem like mere labeling but it is part of a serious effort to downgrade protections for water across the board.

Cleveland County travesty

The proposal for a dam in Cleveland County on the First Broad River perfectly illustrates how our newly organized Division of Water Resources (DWR) is not protecting the very water in its jurisdiction. The DWR recently waived the federal requirement that North Carolina grant a certification, called a 401 certification, that a proposed project, such as the dam, will not have a negative impact on water quality. Such a certification would have required the state to hold public hearings and allow public comment on the project, something the DWR apparently deems inopportune at this moment. Instead of working on behalf of all North Carolinians to protect our environment, the DWR has passed the buck to other agencies at the federal level to look out for our interests.

DWR’s excuse for doing so is that too much has already been spent by the backers of the dam and by the state to justify additional expenditures associated with the 401 certification process. But it is, in fact, exactly during that process that the state would render a crucial determination on the compliance of the project with federal Clean Water Act standards. If the state denies the 401 certification, which it would likely do given the effects of the dam on the environment, there would be no need for the federal agencies to be involved further. DWR’s waiver, on the other hand, creates an opening for project backers to convince the federal agencies that the project is worthy of completion.

Of course, the terrible irony for North Carolinians is that the DWR is supposed to be protecting our environment, including our reservoirs, waterways, and coastal areas, under the Clean Water Act – a law that has just celebrated 40 years of successful stewardship and clean-up, successes that no one with any awareness of our water resources can deny. We should all be deeply concerned that our state agency, with full authority under the Clean Water Act, has deprived us all of a voice in this issue. It has also failed to force the applicants for the dam project to do the necessary work to flesh out viable alternatives – alternatives which absolutely do exist – to a project that will have a disastrous effect on 1,500 acres of forest and farmland, 24 miles of streams, six acres of valuable wetlands, and a federally protected plant community (the dwarf-flowered heartleaf), not to mention concerns relating to environmental justice for Cleveland County residents.

We – and our water – deserve better from our lawmakers and state environmental agency.

You can find the original op-ed here.