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Anglers, Environmentalists Mount Campaign Against ‘Beech Mountain Water Grab,’ Public Hearing Tuesday

By Jesse Wood

Dec. 13, 2013. Regarding Beech Mountain’s proposed water intake along the Watauga River near Guy Ford Bridge, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners will hear from citizens during a public hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 17, at 6 p.m. 

One of which will be Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby.

Lisenby, who has mounted a campaign to say no to the “Beech Mountain Water Grab,” has multiple concerns with the intake that is proposed to draw 2 million gallons per day from the Watauga River during times of drought and pump it up to Beech Mountain utilizing two or three pump stations to overcome the elevation.

1497793_10151836744032012_2012673039_nLisenby’s main concern is Beech Mountain’s old infrastructure that is currently losing a large amount of water through leaks. She cited a Town of Beech Mountain “Water and Sewer Study” conducted by Rothrock Engineering in July 2011 that noted that the Rural Water Association in 2009 estimated water loss at 80 percent, while Rothrock Engineering estimated water loss at 56.19 percent in its 2011 study. Rothrock Engineering is the consulting engineer on this project.

While the study notes that “no significant leaks [were] found,” it estimated that 1.2 million gallons of water was lost from water breaks and leaks. Lisenby also pointed out that in the past year three sewage overflows have occurred, leading to raw sewage entering the surface waters because of “leaking, faulty” sewage systems.

“What seems prudent to me is to encourage Beech Mountain to fix its broken infrastructure before we allow them to spend a whole lot of money on miles of infrastructure,” Lisenby said. 

To move forward with this project, the Watauga River must be reclassified from High Quality Waters designation to the WS-IV designation, which is the least restrictive designation. Essentially, this step – and therefore the entire project – is dead in the water if the board of commissioners doesn’t approve of the reclassification. 

A “domino effect” is something else that concerns Lisenby, adding that if the reclassification, which is a multi-year process, is granted than it will open the rivers up to other entities that may want to draw water from the Watauga River – something that “Watauga County should think long and hard about, whether or not its in the long-term best interest to grant this reclassification.”

In addition, Lisenby mentioned that she has concerns about water being pulled from the river in times of drought, which is the only time that Beech Mountain intends to utilize the intake system, according to documents the town submitted to the county. Lisenby notes that the lowest daily average flow for the Watauga in the last 74 years is 5.2 million gallons per day.

Taking into account the maximum instantaneous withdrawal of 2 million gallons per day proposed during drought conditions, Lisenby said, “That’s about 38 percent of the flow of the river.” This in turn would affect the trout and other aquatic life even more so than drought conditions already would.

That last point is something N.C. Trout Unlimited Council Chair Jim Mabrey noted in an email to fellow members of the organization.

“Please consider attending this meeting if you live close by and voice your opposition to this poorly conceived idea … This is an opportunity for us to stand together to protect a river designated as ‘High Quality Water’ from exploitation,” Mabrey wrote. “To even consider removing over a third of the water in a river during drought conditions is irresponsible. The Watauga River is too valuable an asset to the local economy to allow it to be put at risk for devastation or pollution.”

Buckeye Lake during summer 2010 drought.
Atop Beech Mountain, Buckeye Lake experienced drought conditions in 2010. Beech Mountain Utilities Director Robert Heaton said, “The tangible event that highlighted the need for the water source in the most dramatic way was the extreme drought conditions that the Town of Beech Mountain experienced in the summer of 2010.”

Officials with the Town of Beech Mountain maintain that the water is needed for future development of the town.

“This intake is critical to the future viability of Beech Mountain,” Town Manager Randy Feierabend wrote in a letter to the commissioners.

The town considered other alternatives because this intake project was more costly, mostly due to having to pump the water a vast distance to reach Beech Mountain.

“The Watauga River was considered last among all of the available options because of the distance and therefore the cost. However … it is a solution which can serve the Town for most, if not all of the next century,” P. Marion Rothrock, president of Rothrock Engineering, wrote to the commissioners.

Read prior articles for much more information on this topic and proposed intake system:

Nov. 19, 2013: Beech Mountain Seeks Water Intake Near Guy Ford Bridge, Kayak Put-in for Classic Watauga Gorge

Nov. 20, 2013: Commissioners Schedule Public Hearing In Response to Beech Mountain’s Request for Support of Intake Project