Newly elected City Council member Trudy Wade cites “incompetence on the part of city government!” in her assessment of Greensboro’s water policy.
“The City of Greensboro gambled that there would not be a water shortage and we, the citizens, lost,” Wade says in a blazing red, white and blue campaign mailer.
The word “incompetent” is printed in bright red letters for emphasis.
Meanwhile, Jim Morris, director of the state Division of Water Resources, tells the News & Observer of Raleigh, “Greensboro has done everything right” when it comes to managing its dwindling water supply.
So, which is it? Is Greensboro the paragon of water policy or a case study in short-sightedness?
City Councilman Mike Barber agrees with Morris.
While he has issues with some city departments, Barber said Thursday, Water Resources isn’t one of them.
“That is truly a department that we can be proud of,” Barber says. “(City Water Resources Director) Allan Williams and his team are held up as the best department in North Carolina, if not the whole Southeast.”
Barber is a sitting council member. So you might expect him to make such pronouncements.
Yet even a daily newspaper in another North Carolina city agrees. In a recent news story and an editorial, the News & Observer of Raleigh praises Greensboro for its forward-thinking water initiatives.
Among moves the N&O lauds:
• Building pipelines to Burlington, Reidsville and Winston-Salem for water purchases during droughts.
• Pushing citizen conservation in proactive public relations campaigns.
• Taking part in the regional water authority that built and will operate the new Randleman Reservoir.
• Structuring water rates that penalize high-volume users.
That’s all well and good, Wade said last week, but the city should have done more. For starters, she said, it could have begun building a pipeline from the Randleman reservoir more than two years ago.
Then the city could tap water from that lake, which isn’t scheduled to come online until 2011 at the earliest, right now in a dire emergency, she said.
Wade certainly raises a reasonable question. If you’re going to have to build a pipeline eventually anyway, why not now? Why not yesterday?
“Go ahead and run the pipeline down to Randleman Lake,” Wade said. “I’d like to be sure that when we’re in an emergency situation, we’ll have water.”
Tom Phillips, another sitting City Council member, says such a notion is misinformed and impractical.
“That is so wrong I don’t know where to begin,” said Phillips, who has represented Greensboro on the board of directors of the regional water authority that oversees the lake and dam since 1992. “She’s in left field and you can quote me on that.”
First of all, Phillips said, the city could not act unilaterally. The lake belongs to a coalition of governments, including Greensboro, High Point, Archdale, Jamestown, Randleman and Randolph County.
Greensboro has only a 30 percent say on how that authority operates the reservoir.
“There are tons of subplots involved when you’re dealing with different governments,” Phillips said.
As an example, High Point’s representative to the board, former Mayor Arnold Koonce, said he would favor moving ahead with the plan and timetable the water authority already has set to build a regional treatment plant.
“To serve everybody’s need, we ought to stick with the treatment plant and move on,” Koonce said Thursday.
But even if Greensboro’s partners were to sign off on an emergency pipeline, the lake contains raw water that would need to be treated before it would be fit for human consumption.
So Greensboro would have to build the treatment plant. For $60 million. Plus the pipeline.
Had Wade inquired about the cost?
No, she said last week. That’s “a technicality.”
Still, let’s say you bypass that step and pump the raw water directly into Greensboro for treatment. Then you’d have to acquire the right-of-way for the pipeline.
Phillips says that wouldn’t be a big problem along U.S. 220 into Greensboro.
But once you got into the city limits, then what? You’d have to extend the pipes to the nearest existing treatment plant, the Mitchell Treatment Plant, meaning 16-plus more miles of pipe across interstates 40, 73 and 85, as well as railroad lines.
More right-of-way to be negotiated for and bought. Pipe to be laid and buried. Permits to be obtained.
There are more complications. The pipeline from the city limit to the Mitchell Treatment Plant would become essentially useless once the new regional treatment plant is built.
Would a temporary pipeline be worth the massive investment in taxpayers’ dollars?
John Kime, executive director of the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority, recently told the News & Record’s Taft Wireback that even under a best-case scenario we won’t be sipping water from the Randleman reservoir for at least another four years.
Even so, Wade was right to raise the question about the pipeline. As they say, the only bad question is the one not asked.
Wade only gave voice to concerns other citizens have raised.
But Wade at least could have gotten some more concrete answers before casting a broad, wet blanket of aspersions on city government.
“I think we should be proactive and look ahead,” Wade said last week. “But certainly I’d want to talk to other council members and staff.”
Why not have those conversations before settling on premature conclusions in screaming red ink?
If Wade has asked, she’d know that city officials had considered her pipeline idea. And others. Years ago.
Aside from the pipelines to other cities, and the purchase of a dam on the Haw River, the city also explored its own option for drawing raw water from Randleman Lake.
City officials considered an arrangement with High Point in which raw water from Randleman Lake would be pumped into High Point’s lake system, treated in High Point’s plants, then piped to Greensboro.
The water authority board chose against that option.
In light of the ongoing drought it is important to have an informed discussion. And to ask tough questions.
If past is prologue, Wade, who performed well as a county commissioner, will be especially good at that.
But not in this case.
The last thing Greensboro needs right now is a shortage of facts about its shortage of water.
Contact Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson at 373-7010 or at email@example.com.