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Water wars

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"Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over." —Mark Twain

It's Sunday, shortly after noon, too early for whisky. It's raining, but I'm not fooled by the torrents pouring from the sky; even if we get the 2 inches our quixotic local meteorologists forecast, the Triangle will be down more than a half-foot of rainfall for the year. That means the showers stay short; the car, dirty; the paper plates, piled in the trash.

If you've ever lived where water is scarce and year-round restrictions are de rigueur—Texas, Nevada, the Southwest—the Triangle's conservation measures are puny, laughable, even. To those unaccustomed to being awash in water, the wailing and gnashing of teeth when the first conservation recommendations were not so much announced as hinted at, was puzzling. Of course, lawns turn brown and go dormant in the summer. Of course, you can't expect to automatically get a glass of water in a restaurant. Of course, factories have water reuse systems.

In San Antonio, Texas, where a single aquifer provides the main source of drinking water for more than 1.2 million people—and irrigation for several counties' farms—citizens watch the aquifer level as rabidly as the win-loss record of their beloved NBA team, the Spurs. The region has even established the Edwards Aquifer Authority, whose charge, with the help (or at times, the hindrance) of the legislature, is to write and enforce water quantity and quality policy.

That kind of serious regional water management, like regional transportation planning (let's hope the water version is more effective), is what North Carolina needs. This week, Cat Warren explores the need for a statewide water strategy in "When short showers aren't enough." It is the third story in a series of articles about the drought and the Triangle's blunted attempts at water conservation (see Warren's piece, "Drought tolerance," Dec. 19, 2007, and "Lawn lovers, local officials ignore drought," Oct. 10, 2007, by Bob Burtman).

The provincialism that characterized the drought's initial stages—you could almost hear the "nyah-nyah-nyahs" from the well-watered counties—was disappointing. While there are regulations governing how we can buy water from one another via interbasin transfers and other impromptu operating agreements, there has been no leadership on conserving water to help save our neighbors, and thereby ourselves.

This leadership must come from the legislature, city and town councils, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Division of Water Resources. It will require—gasp—stricter regulations; when it comes to life's necessities, let's not roll the dice on the free market. It will take a culture shift to make us understand that water is a common good; it can be used or abused by all of us. But only while it exists.

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