Once again, the Town of Beech Mountain is trying to build a water intake on the Watauga River to withdraw up to 500,000 gallons a day in times of drought. As the town doubles down on this proposal, ignoring public concern and funding a misleading PR campaign, MountainTrue would like to set some facts straight from a recent story in the Watauga Democrat (“Beech Mountain launches website for Watauga River intake plan, May 20 2020.”)

Despite the breezy tone and vague assurances of the town’s PR campaign, MountainTrue has grave concerns about the lack of due process and environmental impacts of their plans for the Watauga. In the open meeting about the water intake proposal on Feb. 25, Watauga County citizens were denied the opportunity to give public comment.

Instead of hearing and responding to public concerns, the town council silenced the standing-room only crowd and voted to spend $2.15 million to begin permitting for the proposal.

In the same breath, they decided they needed a slick PR campaign to “greenwash” their water grab and rebrand the town as a leader in water conservation.

The result is an ironically-titled website called “Let it Flow,” which is filled with voluntary water conservation tips, vague assurances and misinformation. Over and over again, the town says they will take only 0.316% of the river’s flow, but has chosen to calculate that based on the average daily flow rather than how much water is left during drought seasons.

You only have to look back to the drought of 2010 to remember when the Watauga River at the Guy Ford Road Bridge ran dry. What is now Watauga County’s newest river park — popular with anglers and paddlers, and an anchor of the Watauga River Paddle Trail — was a series of unconnected pools of water during that drought. The town’s plan to withdraw 500,000 gallons a day directly upstream from the park under drought conditions would have catastrophic effects on aquatic habitats, trout populations and the people and businesses that depend on them.

Even during times of normal flow, the proposed intake would have serious environmental implications for rare aquatic species like the Hellbender Salamander.

The town’s website even boasts about its commitment to water conservation, stating that residents on average use half the amount of water as the North Carolina state average. Sound fishy? Well it should, because these numbers are based on a three year average for a town where a vast number of properties are vacation rentals and second homes. It’s easy to keep the tap turned off when you’re not home most of the year. And that’s not to mention that an audit last year found that 59% of the town’s water is being lost due to leaking pipes.

The town also states that reclassifying the river will “further protect the watershed,” when it would actually open the river up to any number of additional intake and development proposals in the future. This is a slippery slope that the Watauga and the traditions that depend on it cannot afford.

Even their claim that they will withdraw only during times of drought is dubious at best, as to properly maintain such a water pumping system would likely require pumping some amount throughout the year. Either way, the town has provided no plan for oversight of when they will be pumping and how much, nor for how thoroughly they have investigated alternatives to the water grab. While the town has assured us that the intake would only be used during times of drought, we know that extreme weather (including drought periods) is increasing in our region. This means current drought estimates are very likely to change, and that increasing reliance on the Watauga for drinking water puts local economies that depend on river flow at risk.

The “Let It Flow” website is a testament to the town’s single-minded determination to pursue this water grab no matter the costs to our environment, to our economy and to our communities.

There are engineering studies and feasibility studies meant to sell the public on the new pumping station, but not a single environmental impact study to tell you that pumping 500,000 gallons of water out of the Watauga during a drought is a good idea.

Instead of spending $2.15 million on pursuing permits for their intake and launching an expensive PR campaign, the town could have used those dollars to tackle the true root of the problem: fixing their leaky pipes, investing in real water conservation programs and committing to a thorough and transparent exploration of other water storage methods.

The Watauga is a natural gem, a paradise for paddlers and trout fishermen, and a lifeline for our local economy that must be protected at all costs. Therefore, MountainTrue is calling for:

● The Town of Beech Mountain to fix its leaky pipes before using tax money, utility customer funds or issuing bonds to begin the permitting process for the Watauga River intake;

● The Town of Beech Mountain to rectify its denial of free speech by the public at its Feb. 25 meeting by holding a proper public hearing and allowing the people who own land, farm along the Watauga River and its tributaries upstream of Guy Ford Rd as well as people who fish, recreate and operate businesses dependent on the Watauga River to speak freely on the matter.

● The Watauga County Commission not to take action regarding requests to reclassify the Watauga River until Beech Mountain fixes its leaky pipes and holds a proper public hearing.

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By Andy Hill, Watauga Riverkeeper and High Country regional director of MountainTrue.

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