Durham City Council still drags feet on drought | Durham County | Indy Week

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Durham City Council still drags feet on drought



The drought in Durham book-ended the City Council’s agenda Monday, and as usual, little was accomplished.

Councilor Eugene Brown, an outspoken critic of the city’s conservation policy, questioned the placement of water restrictions as one of the last items on the agenda. “It’s always the last item on the agenda. I think this is one of the major challenges we face,” Brown said.

“We’ve been trying to manage your agenda,” replied City Manager Patrick Baker. Moreover, the council deferred any decisions on tweaking further water restriction stages, including rationing, to a later meeting. Instead, defensiveness about Durham’s conservation efforts dominated.

Brown, who has consistently called for conservation, called not only Durham’s—but also the region’s— progress on conservation “dynamic inaction.”

But Mayor Pro-tem Cora Cole-McFadden went out of her way to thank the Durham water department for its work, and reminded the audience that the city has been working on conservation “since 1993.”

The City of Durham has been criticized by local media, including this newspaper, as well by environmental groups, for moving too slowly on conservation. Mayor Bill Bell had suggested more than a month ago that Durham needed to expedite implementing a tiered system, but since then, has not pushed the issue publicly.

So Monday’s drought actions came down to a somewhat desultory scattershot of comments, criticisms and compliments traded between council and staff, with Brown, as has become customary, asking the majority of questions.

City staff suggested amendments to ordinances detailing severe restrictions, under Stage 5, or rationing, under Stage 6, didn’t get far. Such restrictions, if instituted, could include banning any industrial use of water, and using only raw water to fight fires. Bell noted that the council needed to further discuss them at a work session before approving them.

Durham officials contend the city has 243 days of water left, based on historic water use and 30-day running averages. Some water experts have questioned those figures because of such issues as rapid reservoir evaporation, climate change and the inevitability of high summer, or even spring temperatures, quickly increasing water consumption. Councilor Howard Clement III, called for “a centralized regional authority governing water management, so we can talk the same language”—an unlikely move, although different water restrictions among cities confuses customers.

In the meantime, work on the conservation front appeared to move just as incrementally. Durham has just 10 to 12 rain barrels, priced at $90 each, available to customers, according to Deputy Water Manager Director Vicki Westbrook, although she said she is keeping a list of people who want barrels. Raleigh is selling rain barrels to its residents for $35, according to Brown and Councilor Mike Woodard. Woodard said he’s received several emails from constituents asking how to get barrels.

Brown also reiterated his plea that city officials stop announcing that Durham customers have reduced their water usage by 40 percent, and provide the more accurate figure of reductions in water over the same time last year. Those figures have vacillated between 8 and 12 percent over the past three months. Water experts, he said, have pointed out that the 40 percent figure neither fully informs consumers, nor encourages greater conservation.

“I want to make a formal request that we please, please, please stop using the sentence that is on our front page,” Brown said. “I’m sorry to say, folks, we’re not doing great. The city’s goal should be 30 percent water conservation, and we’re only at 10 percent.”

Brown got part of his wish. By Tuesday morning, the City of Durham Web site had been edited slightly: “Since September, customers have reduced their water usage by 40 percent and are using 11 percent less than last than last year at this time.”

But Bell insisted at the meeting that there was no intend to mislead, and that the city was doing what the governor requested in using that 40 percent figure.

Durham has been buying water from Orange County Water and Sewer Authority and pulling water from the Eno River—43 million gallons, and 35 million gallons respectively, according to the Durham Water Department.

However, one of those supplies is now unavailable. The OWASA agreement ended two weeks ago “by mutual agreement,” according to Deputy Water Management Director Don Greeley, as Chapel Hill is facing further water restrictions because of decreased supplies.

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