Four of the 10 candidates for governor of North Carolina gathered in the Griffith Film Theater Tuesday to discuss an issue that many of the state's voters are talking about for the first time-water.
Topics usually discussed by gubernatorial candidates were minimized in a forum titled "The Future of the Water in North Carolina," which was hosted by the Nicholas Institute of the Environment and Earth Sciences.
An audience of nearly 200 people -- including realtors, developers, conservationists and other groups with a stake in the issue-listened to candidates' reactions to the recent drought that has affected Durham and much of the state.
The drought should serve as a wake-up call to North Carolina, just as Hurricane Fran made the state more aware of its hurricane vulnerability in 1996, said State Treasurer Richard Moore, one of the two Democratic frontrunners in the race.
"We are sitting in a building that was created out of the wealth of tobacco. The reason that tobacco grew so well in North Carolina was because we had so much water," Moore said. "Water, in many ways, will be like gold in economic development over the next 50 years if we manage it the right way."
Moore said his experience investing the state's money made him the most qualified person to manage water as a valuable resource. He added that he would like to apply emergency-response language to drought preparation by focusing on the four stages of emergency management: planning, response, recovery and mitigation.
Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the other Democratic candidate in the race, also stated the importance of preparing for future droughts. She said her experience in state government as well as her role as a former school teacher would inform her policy approach to water.
"The worst thing that we can do is just sit around and say, 'Oh, thank God it is raining again, we don't have anything else to worry about,'" Perdue said. "Y'all will call me an old school teacher, but I think we have to go back to educating the public."
Duke University students who attended the event said they were impressed by Perdue's more focused approach to the water issues presented.
"Moore just talks in a lot of generalities whereas Perdue talks in specifics," said Garrett Martin, a second-year graduate student in the Nicholas School. Martin said he thought Perdue showed a better understanding of tiered pricing, a strategy that encourages conservation by setting lower utilities prices for users who decrease water use.
"[Perdue] was the first one to talk about North Carolina as a whole," said Kelly Peak, also a second-year graduate student in the Nicholas School. "People in the mountains and at the coast aren't conserving water, so I think that is a problem." She added, however, that both Democratic candidates seemed to agree on most of the basic issues.
Democrats have traditionally dominated North Carolina state government and were the center of attention at the water forum.
Most of the audience had left by the time the final speaker, Republican candidate Bob Orr, a former State Supreme Court justice, began. Orr criticized incumbent Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and said he would focus on tax reform and local policy solutions if elected.
"The biggest failure of the current administration was that there was no real planning to deal with an upcoming drought," he said. "I am not an expert on water, but as a candidate you have to educate yourself as best you can."
An alternative perspective was provided by Libertarian candidate Michael Munger, Duke professor of political science and economics. Munger said he supported market-based approaches to the water issue.
"I would propose that we stop our mindless subsidizingof new roads and highways, except for the minimum necessary for upkeep," he said. "One-third of those funds should be redirected for water infrastructure."
© 2008 The Chronicle via U-WIRE