The legislature’s months-long debate of the new state budget is coming to an end, and there are some key Western North Carolina conservation investments at stake this year.
The budget process for the state’s biennial (AKA two-year) budget began in March, when Governor Roy Cooper delivered his proposed budget to the General Assembly. The House of Representatives followed with weeks of budget meetings that culminated in approval of its version of the state’s $24 billion spending plan. In recent weeks, the Senate has developed its own version of the budget.
Now comes “conference” – the process the House and Senate use to reconcile their budgets and send a final version to the Governor for signature or veto.
Over the past few months, MountainTrue has been working with lawmakers to support a number of conservation projects that are now being discussed in conference. Specifically we are asking lawmakers to support funding to:
Allow the NC Department of Environmental Quality to investigate and clean up hazardous spills from unknown sources – as occurred recently in the Watauga River (included in the Senate budget, $200,000 one-time funding)
Improve public access to a popular recreation area in the Green River Game Lands in Henderson and Polk counties (included in the Senate budget, $150,000)
Provide state funding to monitor popular WNC rivers and streams for E. coli and other pollutants that can make people sick (included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
Expand fishing and camping tourism with improvements to the French Broad River Paddle Trail in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison counties (included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
Improve fish habitat and hunting and fishing access by providing matching funds to remove the Ward’s Mill Dam on the Watauga River in Watauga County (Included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
Expand camping and fishing tourism with investment in the Watauga River Paddle Trail in Watauga County (Included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
MountainTrue – and our region – is fortunate to have a number of lawmakers who have been willing to support these projects. Thank you to Representatives Chuck McGrady, Josh Dobson, Kevin Corbin and Brian Turner for your help. On the Senate side, Senators Chuck Edwards and Deanna Ballard have been immensely helpful.
MountainTrue staff will travel to Raleigh next week for the last of this year’s monthly lobbying trips to support these budget items. Look for an update in the coming weeks about our trip, the final budget and its investments in Western North Carolina.
MountainTrue is pleased to announce that David Caldwell, MountainTrue’s program director for the Broad River Alliance, is now the new Broad Riverkeeper and will serve as a fundamental protector of the Broad River watershed. MountainTrue’s riverkeeper programs are key to our endeavors to monitor and protect the quality of our region’s waterways. MountainTrue is one of the few organizations in the nation with four Waterkeeper Alliance Riverkeeper programs: the French Broad Riverkeeper, the Green Riverkeeper, the Watauga Riverkeeper and now the Broad Riverkeeper.
Quote from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance:
“Waterkeeper Alliance is thrilled to have David Caldwell as the eyes, ears, and voice in this this vital watershed and community. Every community deserves to have swimmable, drinkable and fishable water, and David is the right leader to fight for clean water in the region.”
David moved to the Broad River watershed in 1987 after receiving an Engineering degree from Clemson University. He worked in manufacturing for several years in Shelby, and has been fishing, paddling and exploring the watershed’s rivers and tributaries for over three decades now.
David’s first civic involvement was in the late 90s, when he joined efforts to rebuild and restore the carousel in Shelby City Park. The carousel is now a jewel of the City of Shelby Parks system. Since 2000, David has also run a woodworking business at his home in Lawndale.
In 2015, David became the Coordinator for the Broad River Alliance, a Waterkeeper Affiliate and program of MountainTrue. David has teamed up with regional representatives from the Broad River Greenway, Rutherford Outdoor Coalition, Rutherford County and Cleveland County Development Authorities and others to protect and promote the waters of the Broad River basin.
Quote from David Caldwell, the Broad Riverkeeper:
“I’ve spent the past three decades falling in love with the Broad River and its tributaries. It is an honor to be able to call myself a Riverkeeper and to continue my mission to ensure our rivers are safe and clean for the people who live, swim, paddle, and fish here. Folks in our watershed are passionate about our beautiful rivers and have amazed me with their enthusiasm and support. We have a lot of great programs and activities planned for our community in the year ahead. I hope that you will join us.”
Quote from Julie Mayfield, co-director of MountainTrue:
“MountainTrue is proud of our partnership with the Waterkeeper Alliance. Our Riverkeepers fight for safe and healthy waterways for all citizens of their watersheds by bringing together and empowering local residents and communities to identify pollution sources, advocate for and enforce environmental laws, and engage in restoration. We’re thrilled to be bringing this program to our Broad River communities.”
Quote from Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance:
“David will have an incredibly important job. Waterkeepers defend their communities against anyone who threatens their right to clean water, from law-breaking polluters to irresponsible government officials. Until our public agencies have the means necessary to protect us from polluters, and the will to enforce the law, there will always be a great need for people like David to fight for our right to clean water.”
MountainTrue in Raleigh to speak with legislators on May 1. From left to right: Green Riverkeeper Gray Jernigan, Co-Director Bob Wagner, Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill, Development Director Adam Bowers and volunteer Robert Udashen.
Last week was “crossover week”, which might as well be “chaos week” in the legislature.
That’s because “crossover” refers to the legislature’s deadline for most bills to move from one chamber of the legislature to the other in order to remain eligible for consideration for the rest of the two-year legislative session. The official crossover deadline occurred last week, with both chambers pushing dozens of bills through the legislative process before the deadline kicked in.
As with all rules and deadlines at the General Assembly, there are a number of ways for lawmakers to get around the crossover rule. Gutting a bill that has passed one chamber and re-writing it to address a different issue altogether is a popular strategy. But for the most part, a bill that is subject to crossover but doesn’t meet the deadline dies a quick death.
Thus the mad scramble of crossover week.
Perhaps the most important bill with implications for the environment that passed in crossover week was SB559, which would remove the need for utilities to come before the NC Utilities Commission and the public on a yearly basis when rate increases are proposed. Instead, utilities would be able to get rate hikes approved for up to five years all at once.
Supporters of the bill argue that the NC Utilities Commission already has the power to approve rate hikes for future costs, and that the law would only make this power more explicit.
But a broad coalition of bill opponents – including environmental groups, business organizations, manufacturers and consumer groups – worry that multi-year rate plans will give them less input in the process the commission uses to set rates.
MountainTrue opposes the bill for this reason and more. SB559 reduces the opportunity for the public to have a say about rate hikes on a year-by-year basis and, by increasing the likelihood of the Utilities Commission considering rate hikes to pay for future costs, makes it harder to ensure that these costs are reasonable and prudent. Neighboring states have experienced this firsthand: In South Carolina, for instance, the Base Load Review Act empowered utilities to charge customers for large power plants before they were built. This resulted in customers being charged $37 million per month for the cost of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station before it was abandoned in 2017.
We are also concerned that SB559 will limit discussion on how much Duke investors – not consumers – should have to pay for the cost of cleaning up the company’s multi-billion dollar coal ash mess.
Unfortunately, the objections of so many interest groups did not prevent the Senate from approving the bill, which collected the support of most of its GOP majority as well as a small number of Democrats. Several Republicans also voted against the bill.
Among Western North Carolina legislators, Senator Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) voted against the bill; Senators Chuck Edwards (R – Henderson, Buncombe, Transylvania), Jim Davis (R – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain) and Deanna Ballard (R – Alleghany, Ashe, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes) voted in support.
SB559 now moves on to the House, where its prospects for approval are less certain.
In other legislative news, MountainTrue staff and volunteers were in Raleigh on May 1 to talk to lawmakers about our legislative priorities, which include increased funding for the French Broad Paddle Trail and support for climate resilience planning in WNC.
Look for an update about these issues in an upcoming report, and as always, thanks for the support that makes our legislative advocacy in Raleigh possible!
Before you head out onto the water, don’t forget to check theswimguide.org. MountainTrue’s four Riverkeepers post up-to-date water monitoring results for the Broad, French Broad, Green and Watauga rivers just in time for the weekends. The Swim Guide is the public’s best resource for knowing which streams and river recreation areas are safe to swim in, and which have failed to meet safe water quality standards for bacteria pollution.
“Right before jumping into the river, the number one question people ask us is ‘Is it clean?’” says French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “Swim Guide is the answer to that question.” Each week throughout the spring, summer and fall, the volunteers for each of MounainTrue’s four Riverkeeper programs collect samples from their rivers’ most popular streams and recreation areas every Wednesday. By Friday afternoon, those samples are analyzed for levels of E. coli and the data is posted to theswimguide.org.
“We get the results to the public as quickly as possible because we want Swim Guide to be up-to-date in time for the weekend,” says Green Riverkeeper Gray Jernigan.
“E. coli bacteria makes its way into our rivers and streams from sewer leaks, failing septic tanks and stormwater runoff. One of the biggest culprits is runoff from animal agricultural operations with substandard riparian buffers,” explains Broad Riverkeeper David Caldwell. In general, waterways that are located in more remote areas or protected public lands that lack agricultural, developmental or industrial pollution sources are the cleanest and least affected by stormwater runoff. Areas closer to development and polluting agricultural practices are much more heavily impacted.
Heavy rains and storms often result in spikes in E. coli contamination, increasing the risk to human health. “As it rains and the river becomes muddier, levels of bacteria pollution generally get worse,” Watauga Riverkeeper Andy explains. “But when the water is clear, it’s a great opportunity to get out for a swim in the river without worry.”