Gov. Mike Easley urged local governments Thursday to charge hefty prices to residents who use more water than necessary as state leaders look at ways to curtail a worsening drought.
The plan would keep prices low for necessary water use but "significantly" raise the price of water on customers who use excessive amounts, Easley said. He wants the plan to remain permanent for long-term conservation.
"I hope statewide that we can get all of our municipalities to adopt that conservation pricing strategy," Easley said during a meeting of the Drought Management Advisory Council, a panel of local and state officials. "I hope people will understand it and know that they have to conserve. The water bill will certainly be one more reminder."
Water use dropped about 30 percent between August and the end of October after Easley issued a call to cut water usage by 50 percent. But water use has crept back up, Easley said. In some communities, the Democratic governor suggested those conservation numbers should now be climbing to 40 percent.
"This is a very manageable problem," Easley said. "It's not that difficult if people chip in and do their part."
Emergency plans sought
Still, he called on local governments to prepare emergency plans in case the drought gets worse.
The U.S. Drought Monitor released a report Thursday that said about two-thirds of the state is under exceptional drought conditions, the most intense category. The remainder of the state — small sections along the Virginia border and much of the coast — are classified in extreme or severe drought.
Weather forecasters issued a bleak outlook for the next six months, noting that the La Nina climate pattern is driving wet weather to the north and away from the drought-parched Southeast. They expect that to continue through the spring, bringing lower-than-normal precipitation at a time when the state needs above-average rainfall.
Officials from the state's Department of Agriculture bemoaned an industry that has suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in drought-related losses in 2007. Forestry representatives worried about a trend of larger and more intense wildfires. Duke Energy said the drought is making it difficult on some of its water-based generators.
"It is very critical that we get some rainfall," said Curtis Weaver of the U.S. Geological Survey, following his discussion about low water levels in streams.
"Come the spring, it's going to be very uncomfortable. We're going to need to plan for some very serious conditions," he said.
Help coming for farmers
The state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Division of Emergency Management plan to hold a workshop in mid-January to help local governments formulate emergency water plans.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler announced Thursday that the state has received its first shipment of hay to distribute and sell to farmers. The drought destroyed about $91 million worth of the state's hay and pasture in 2007, according to state estimates, leaving farmers without enough food for their livestock.
The Council of State — a panel of top state officials — has authorized the state to use up to $3.5 million to purchase and transport hay from out of the state.