By Scott Mooneyham
Thursday, August 29, 2013 —
RALEIGH – The summer of 2013 may not be remembered by Gov. Pat McCrory as the best of times.
He has been knocked around by the state and national media for signing election bills and abortion bills. He’s been knocked around by legislators for vetoing immigration bills and welfare bills. He’s even been knocked around for giving cookies to a little girl.
Sitting in his office, McCrory might be wondering whether it is OK to pat a dog on the head.
In the midst of all these knocks, McCrory and his administration took some largely unnoticed action that could have as much effect on one region of the state as any of the aforementioned controversies.
McCrory and his Department of Administration filed a lawsuit to lay claim to the riverbed of the Yadkin River, saying that aluminum-maker Alcoa cannot do the same.
In taking the action, the state has again extended the legal fight over who will control four dams along the river built by Alcoa, and by extension, the water itself, for the next 50 years. Because of the lawsuit, state regulators have denied a water quality permit for the dams, meaning that federal regulators will again wait to decide whether Alcoa receives a new 50-year license to operate the dams.
In filing the lawsuit, McCrory said, “The Yadkin River is a North Carolina river. We should be able to use it for North Carolina water needs and to create North Carolina jobs.”
Jobs have been at the heart of the dispute over the dams.
A decade ago, Alcoa shut down its aluminum smelter on the shores of Badin Lake, an operation powered by the electricity generated by the dams. A thousand jobs disappeared.
Since then, critics have argued that Alcoa has no right to continue to control the waters of the Yadkin and that it shouldn’t receive federal re-licensing, forcing the dams to be sold to the state. Alcoa and its backers invoke the mantra “property rights” and talk about concessions made by the company as a part of the re-licensing agreement that will be beneficial to the surrounding towns.
After finally overcoming Stanly County’s longstanding opposition to re-licensing, Alcoa must have thought itself nearly in the clear.
Then along came another governor to get in the way.
What McCrory’s action recognizes ought to be obvious to everyone: Fifty years is a long time, and water needs are going to change drastically during that time.
No single company — particularly one that provides no jobs and is not a state-regulated utility selling electricity directly to consumers — should be allowed to determine an entire region’s economic future based on control of that water.
If this is a property rights issue, the property in question is the water. The state constitution makes clear that it belongs to the people of North Carolina, all of them.
The lawsuit is the McCrory administration’s attempt to protect the people’s rights established in that constitution.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist for Capitol Press Association and covers activities of the N.C. Legislature.