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Grady McCallie of N.C. Conservation Network

A discussion about N.C.'s growth spurt and its extreme drought.

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North Carolina's growth spurt has put it on course to be the seventh-largest state, with 12 million people by 2030. But growth poses major challenges, according to Grady McCallie, policy director for the nonprofit N.C. Conservation Network. McCallie's been talking about our lawmakers' response—or lack of it—on the group's recent "Take Action" tour. The current drought, he says, could be a blessing in disguise if it forces us to confront long-term water issues before they spin out of control. Meanwhile, our transportation problems—one estimate puts the gap between funding and needs at $65 billion over the next 20 years—continues to get worse.

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What's the first thing you say to people?

That North Carolina is in an extreme drought. Also, ad hoc commissions are studying transportation and water allocation issues and are likely to propose major legislation in 2008.

What do you foresee on the transportation side?

North Carolina builds roads based on a rolling, seven-year "wish list" of projects. But in the last few years, thanks to rapid growth in India and China, the price of steel, asphalt and concrete has shot up by half, slowing construction of the projects on that list. In response, road builders are urging state government to increase spending. The 21st Century Transportation Committee seems likely to recommend that the state fund private toll roads and divert funds from other state priorities, or geographic areas, to support projects in the Piedmont cities—the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte. In turn, that will require higher taxes, cuts in other priorities like education and health care, or cuts in funds going to the poor, rural areas of the state.

You're proposing something different?

Yes. North Carolina spends $3.5 billion on transportation annually. Only 25 percent pays for maintenance, so we're behind on maintenance with over 2,000 deficient bridges, for example. We think North Carolina ought to focus more on fixing existing roads before building new capacity that will also be expensive to maintain in the future. Second, given the reality of climate change, North Carolina needs to rethink the kind of new capacity we build. If we stick to the [road construction] projects currently on the state's wish list, we'll end up increasing, not reducing, total emissions from cars and trucks, even as individual vehicles become more efficient. Before we think about new spending, we should redirect existing spending toward compact development and transit, and away from the current practice of subsidizing sprawl.

On water, do you see us making any headway?

The state Environmental Review Commission is just beginning to study water allocation issues. The basic challenge is that, all over the state, demand for water is bumping up against the limits of supply. This year we're in a drought; but as our population swells, shortages will become more common even in years with lots of rain. The drought is a wake-up call: We need a clear, comprehensive water allocation policy for North Carolina's future.

What's the essential policy choice?

There are two basic ways to respond to water shortage. One is to engineer every bit of capacity out of our rivers by building dams, reservoirs and pipelines. That does a lot of ecological damage, and there's still ultimately a limit to the available water. The better response, we think, is to learn to live comfortably within our means.

How so?

By tying growth decisions to available water. Also, adopting water efficiency standards for all new appliances and fixing laws that prevent water reuse—let's reuse shower water on our lawns, for example. Otherwise, we're putting our drinking water on them. We also need to overhaul state water allocation laws, which fail to treat groundwater and surface water equally even though, in many cases, it's the groundwater that keeps streams and rivers flowing during the summer months. Other states that have waited too long to overhaul their water laws have become mired in terrible water wars; we still have time to avoid that if we act wisely—and soon. —Bob Geary

For more info, read Drought Tolerance

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