John McCain really stepped in it out West. When he suggested sending more of Colorado’s precious water south to Arizona, a broad spectrum of citizens rose up to condemn him.

Water, it appears, is precious, no matter what a Coloradan’s political stripe.

Our own multi-governmental OWASA (Orange Water and Sewer Authority) has suggested we borrow additional water from the Haw River, either from the Town of Haw River, or directly, via a pipeline as suggested by this 2008 Stage 3 drought emergency plan.

A Stage Three declaration will also highlight our preparations for a worst case drought response that will provide for temporarily pumping water from the Haw River to the Cane Creek Reservoir. Unless supplementary water is available from neighboring communities, this will be the most viable option for ensuring that we do not run out of water under worst case conditions. Cost estimates for the temporary system are under development, but will likely be in the $4.5 million to $8 million range, depending on the duration and volume of pumping. Specific funding source(s) have not yet been identified, but any supplemental revenue from the Stage Three surcharges will offset a portion of those costs

$4.5 to $8 million sounds outrageous but pales in comparison to the estimated cost of $50 million to cooperatively tap the ever filthier Lake Jordan.

Over the next few years, Chapel Hill’s citizens have to decide whether they have a firm commitment to “live within our means”, to bound development based on our local carrying capacity or to continue expanding to the extent we have to take other folks vital resources (and further diminish the viability of our natural environments, such as the Haw River corridor). There’s little will to substantively take on the long term consequences of our current trajectory. Even with the incredible conservation efforts our local citizenry and institutions have demonstrated, what was once a Stage 3 emergency will become a daily necessity.

Shipping waste 90 miles or pumping water 30 doesn’t jibe with our responsibility to maintain our community’s footprint within what resources are available. Living within that footprint, especially as energy costs increase, makes great economic sense. But for all the teeth gnashing some local politicos and a few green-washed foundations like to engage in, we have taken too few practical and effective steps to realize that commitment.

Talking about commitment (mental?), I was just looking over some old and new requests I have made of our local elective bodies these last eight years.

From my newest one to the Orange County Board of Commissioners – asking them to begin the process to either site a new landfill or develop an in-county alternative for waste management – to one of my oldest to Chapel Hill’s Town Council – setting a goal to reduce fuel use by %5-10, measuring progress and rewarding folks that exceed our expectations – I’ve tried to push a proactive approach to living within our community’s “means”. Water use, available land, even the ability of a wide cross-section of our residents to pay their property taxes, should all play a part in our decision to expand. The current local love affair with high-density, mixed-use developments has obscured this central concern: there are limits to responsible growth – growth that doesn’t demand “borrowing” (to use a development euphemism) resources from far-afield – and Chapel Hill is quickly nearing those limits.

Still haven’t sold our Council on that concept.

Who needs to wait, though, for a popular uprising? Is the plan to schlep on, continue to rely on a comprehensive plan that lacks the nuance to account for carrying capacity, and build until the taps run dry? Do we dump garbage in someone else’s community until it becomes prohibitively expensive to transport it from ours? Do we limit home ownership to those making well-above our Town and University staff’s median income?

Or do we just wait and wait and wait until our own John McCains “step in it”?

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