By Jesse Wood
Dec. 17, 2013. It seemed like as many people who lived atop Beech Mountain year round attended the Watauga County Board of Commissioners’ Tuesday public hearing regarding the town’s controversial proposed water intake system along the Watauga River.
Representing those against the proposal, a haze of red attire filled the hearing for the Beech Mountain’s proposed system with a 2-million-gallon-per-day maximum withdrawal rate. Among the dozens of people who spoke during the public hearing, not one person spoke in favor, and many wore red to say no to the “Beech Mountain Water Grab” project, as one campaign described the proposal located near the Guy Ford Bridge off of U.S. 321 to pump water miles and miles to the top of Beech Mountain.
A diverse group of the county’s citizenry spoke on Tuesday: farmers, kayakers, anglers, environmentalists, rural citizens, advocates of personal property rights, business owners, Democrats, Republicans, independents, college students and other residents from within the county. Even a few Tennessee residents located downstream spoke at the public hearing, concerned that taking water in times of drought would turn the Watauga River into nothing more than a trickle.
After listening to broad list of reasons on why not to vote for this project, the commissioners ventured across the political aisle and voted unanimously to not offer its support, which is one of the first steps required for the Town of Beech Mountain to move forward with the reclassification of the affected area from a High Quality Waters to a WS-IV designation.
“I think we’ve gotten a real clear message tonight,” said Commissioner Billy Kennedy. “As far as emails and phone calls, not one was for supporting this project. Everyone was opposed to this.”
In November, officials and representatives with the Town of Beech Mountain came before the board, outlining that this supplementary water source to the Buckeye Creek Reservoir would only be used during drought and was critical for future development of the town that currently has more than 3,000 undeveloped lots atop the mountain.
(After that meeting in November, Larry Ingle spoke in public comment, noting that the town’s Local Water Supply Plan submitted to the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources stated that the town was currently only using 18 percent of its water supply in 2012 and estimated that it would only use 42 percent of its supply in 2060. Less than a week after his comments took place, the plan was revised and demand jumped to 396 percent of supply in 2012 and 449 percent of supply in 2060.)
Robert Heaton, utilities director with the town, mentioned that the project was estimated to cost $4 million. The town had already secured a long-term lease on the property that would house the intake and plans to construct a pipeline to transport the raw water to the town’s treatment plant. That lease was prepared by Eggers, Eggers, Eggers and Eggers in June 2013. Four Eggers happens to be the county attorney and Beech Mountain attorney.
Not mentioned in the town’s initial presentation before the commissioners in November and briefly skimmed over by those same officials before the Tuesday public hearing was the antiquated infrastructure that was leaking millions of gallons of water annually, according to a 2011 study by Rothrock Engineering, a firm working with the town on this project. The study noted that Beech Mountain lost 56 percent of its water and more than 67 million gallons of water annually because of broken infrastructure that was built many years before the town incorporated. Plus, Beech Mountain had a long-term usage demand that was significantly higher per capita per day than any other surrounding townships.
After listening to dozens of comments that ranged from the aesthetics of the river to the three spills accounting for more than 150,000 gallons of Beech Mountain sewage entering surface waters, Chair Nathan Miller said what particularly resonated with him was the concern for personal property rights and land restrictions that were to come if the WS-IV classification, which was estimated to take two to three years, was eventually granted down the road.
Jason Harmon said he brought property within what was now being proposed WS-IV watershed with zero restrictions. Harmon said that he is highly opposed to anybody restricting what he can and can’t do with his property. Harmon, as others also did, mentioned that once the classification takes place and restrictions are placed on the property, the flood gates, so to speak, would open and officials in Raleigh could increase those restrictions in the future if they chose to do so.
Harmon added these restrictions would kill the marketability of property in the boundaries in question, and he said it was absurd to think that when Buckeye Creek Reservoir atop Beech Mountain is low due to drought that Watauga River would have this abundance of flowing waters to pump out and up the mountain.
As the Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby noted in a prior interview, the lowest daily average for the Watauga River in its 74-year history is 5.2 million gallons per day, and to take 2 million gallons out of the river during drought would represent 38 percent of the flow of the river.