Trust Fund Provides
A program that’s imperative to cleaning tainted waters, maintaining unpolluted ones and preserving land throughout North Carolina could face deeper budget cuts this year.
For nearly two decades North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund has contributed nearly $1 billion to projects that do everything from prevent encroachment of the state’s military installations to help small towns with modest coffers improve water quality and ultimately quality of life.
Established by the General Assembly in 1996, the fund issues grants that specifically address water pollution problems.
Rep. Pat McElraft
But the program that has aided so many has suffered massive budget cuts in the past two years – nearly 90 percent below the $100 million the General Assembly allocated to it in 2008. Legislators allocated about $12 million to the fund last year and also dropped it from the state’s recurring budget. Gov. Pat McCrory in the proposed budget that he released last week slashed that appropriation in half.
The cuts have translated into the fund capping some of its programs, forcing local governments, state agencies and conservation non-profits to look for funding elsewhere or scrap projects altogether.
“The communities we work with are economically stressed communities,” said Executive Director Richard Rogers. “What we’ve seen is, I think because of the caps that we’ve placed, a lot of people not putting projects in. They can’t make it work even putting in as much money as they can. We are no longer the go-to fund where they can get funding they need to correct their problems. The local government infrastructure needs greatly exceed available funding.”
In January the fund received over 90 applications requesting more than $50 million in grants. The list of proposed projects includes water restoration efforts, sewer system and stormwater management improvements and various land acquisitions to protect watersheds.
Only about 15 applications are for wastewater management projects. That’s about a two-thirds reduction in similar requests from last year.
“I speculate that is because our wastewater program was capped at $600,000 per project the last two years,” Rogers said.
The fund has requested from the state $40 million each year for the next two years.
“I think our focus now is to make sure we are funded and to look to increase those funds,” Rogers said. “The (state) budget is extremely tight and we’re all aware of that. If we get some increase in money it’ll be positive… We’ve been working closely with legislators. We’re getting some pretty good reception over there. Better than we did a couple of years ago.”
The jury is still out on just how much support the fund may gain as legislators prepare to once again make tough financial choices.
“I know there are many towns that need financial help in upgrading their wastewater treatment systems,” Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, stated in an email. “The state has many needs pulling on limited funds such as education, Medicaid and public safety.”
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, did not respond to interview requests.
Conservation non-profits like the N.C. Coastal Land Trust have been able to accomplish numerous projects beneficial to coastal residents through fund grants.
“We’ve gotten tens of millions from the fund,” said Camilla Herlevich, the trust’s executive director. “There’s nothing that compares with it. The first thing we’ve been able to achieve is protection of surface water quality in the coastal plain.”
One of the more visible projects Herlevich said was made successful because of a Clean Water Management Trust Fund was a $2 million grant used to acquire more than 900 acres from International Paper in Brunswick County. In 2004 the trust transferred the land, known as Brunswick Nature Park, to the county. The agency worked with the county to develop the park.
“That’s sort of the public linchpin for another four or five thousand acres that have been protected through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund,” Herlevich said. “Local governments have the resources to be able to do annual operations at parks. What they typically don’t have are big chunks of money to buy land. The Clean Water Trust Fund has been a really nice compliment.”
In recent years, Coastal Land Trust has more heavily pursued clean water grants to match federal ones in pursuit of land to prevent encroachment around the state’s military bases.
“Since the federal grants require state matching grants, its role is vital,” Herlevich said. “In Craven, Carteret and Onslow counties we have done a lot of work with the Marine Corps around Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have supported funding for military buffer projects, like those championed by the Coastal Land Trust from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.”
Since 2006 the agency has acquired more than 7,800 acres in encroachment partnership projects. Of the $15 million in state funds invested in these projects, clean water provided just over $10 million.
The trust fund has provided almost $260 million for almost 250 projects in the 20 coastal counties since its inception. That money was then used to attract almost $550 million in additional funding.
Some of that money went to restore the White Oak River.
“We really had methodically worked to identify lands that we thought were important to acquire to protect and restore water quality,” said Todd Miller, the N.C. Coastal Federation’s executive director. “When the fund was created it offered a really effective tool that we never had in the arsenal before to protect water quality in this state. You had willing parties all participating. Whether it was land acquisition projects or retrofit projects, everybody involved felt good about the projects.”
Elected officials of small beach towns like Surf City, which has obtained clean water grants to enhance the town’s water and wastewater services, are talking to their state representatives about the importance of the fund.
“When you’re a small community like we are obviously your resources are limited to a great degree,” Surf City Mayor Zander Guy said. “We do understand that in this economy we’re in that all levels of government need to look at cutbacks. Our hope is, as [the General Assembly] gets into the meat of it they will take a second look at funds such as this.”
Kitty Hawk is one of a few beach towns vying for grant monies from the trust this year.
“We’re hoping to get the funds to put in some storm drainage improvements between N.C. 12 and 58,” said Town Manager John Stockton. “We need to bring pumps into the lowest area we can access and pump the water back into the ocean. The main reason for trying to do this project is because when we have overwash the water stands on the properties.”
Left standing long enough, water seeps into septic systems, creating potential health hazards. Water also floods the streets, limiting the town’s emergency services response to calls.
“We are a small community and our resources are very limited in terms of revenue so we really depend on this type of funding to help us abate these pollution problems,” Stockton said. “If it’s not there we have to try to find other resources. We are really hoping this funding comes through.”
Lobby for Conservation Funding
Join other conservationists Wednesday in Raleigh to talk with legislators about increasing funding to the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and other conservation funds. The Lobby Day is sponsored by Land for Tomorrow, a coalition of groups. An ice cream social and reception follows.
Click to register.