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What could it mean for WNC’s water quality, waterways?

Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink, has been on the board of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund since its inception. Funding for the program, which invests in water-related projects across the state, has seen its funding fall by nearly 90 percent in the past two years. It could face more cuts in the upcoming state budget. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

This month, as the state Senate prepares to unveil its budget proposal, conservation groups in Western North Carolina are keen to see what the spending plan might hold for a key state trust fund that’s fueled investment in water quality projects and watershed protection throughout WNC.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which since its inception in 1996 has distributed more than $200 million in grants in the region and more than $977 million statewide, has seen its funding fall by nearly 90 percent in the past two budget cycles and faces an even deeper cut this year. (See a county-by-county list of key projects financed by the fund in WNC.)

Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal, released in March, included $6,750,000 this year for the fund, by far the lowest amount in its history. The CWMTF, along with other trust funds for state parks and recreation and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, all saw record low funding proposed.

Meanwhile, WNC supporters of clean water efforts say that short-changing a program that’s been a boost to the region’s economy is the wrong move.

“To me, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund is the best economic development tool we have in WNC and in the state,” said Karen Cragnolin, executive director of Asheville-based RiverLink, a nonprofit that works as a watchdog for the French Broad River.

Cragnolin, who has been a board member of the fund since its inception, said the arrival of craft breweries in the mountains of WNC is one obvious way to make the case that the push for clean water the fund has helped finance over the years has provided results.

With the support of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, work is underway to restore this stream near the New Belgium Brewing site in West Asheville. Since its inception, the fund has distributed more than $200 million in grants for projects in the 18 westernmost counties of the state. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

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The fund, she said, has played a critical role during the transition in the region’s economy from manufacturing to tourism and recreation by helping to restore streams and watersheds, cleaning up brownfields near the French Broad and conserving prime lands like DuPont State Forest.

“We know the health of our economy depends on the health of the environment,” Cragnolin said.

When it was founded, the CWMFT was designed to review, rank and distribute grants to projects statewide for watershed protection and conservation, storm water and wastewater improvements and stream and wetlands restoration. The annual spending target for the fund was $100 million but averaged only half that, except during a stretch of years from 2005 to 2008 when it was fully funded.

Like many of the state’s trust funds, in the slow recovery from the recent recession, the fund’s appropriation has been a source of money to offset budget shortfalls elsewhere. In her last two years in office, Gov. Bev Perdue proposed a significant drop in money for the fund. The GOP leadership in the House and Senate cut it even deeper, taking the annual appropriation down to $11.25 million per year — then not only the lowest in its history, but a mere one-third of the amount of the previous low.

The legislature also added restrictions on how the money could be used, putting an emphasis on buffers around military bases in the eastern part of the state, but those restrictions were later dropped.

Source: Clean Water Management Trust Fund

Regional impact

A look at the types of grants distributed in WNC over the years closely follows the region’s topography. At the headwaters of the region’s rivers, in places like Avery County, CWMTF grants have been used mainly for land acquisition and conservation easements. Downstream, grants have been used to restore stream banks and help local governments better manage storm water and wastewater.

In most cases, the grants have leveraged funding from state and local government sources as well as conservation groups and advocates.

Carl Silverstein, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said he’s worried that the fund’s budget struggles could discourage private landowners who are interested in conservation projects.

“I’m afraid there could be a chilling effect for private contribution and investment if the agency isn’t seen as viable,” he said. The CWMTF, he said, has helped finance extensive headwater protections in WNC.

Last year, the conservancy received a $600,000 CWMTF grant to help it purchase the 601-acre Grassy Ridge Tract, in the Roan Highlands. The fund’s contribution augmented funds from a coalition of organizations and individuals for the $2.7 million purchase, which includes the headwaters of Roaring Creek, a wild trout stream that flows into the North Toe River watershed.

“It is just a chart-topping property,” Silverstein said. “It’s been on our list of highest priorities for 40 years.”

Silverstein said it’s a bad time to back away from land acquisition and conservation projects. “We still see real estate values in the low range,” he said. “It’s a good time to be investing in protecting water sources.”

There is a big potential to protect headwaters in WNC, a move that later proves cost effective, he added. “When the headwaters have siltation and pollution, it impacts every part of the system downstream.”

Jay Leutze, a trustee with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, agreed on the need to keep watershed protection moving forward. He said that positive change in the North Toe River watershed is a testament to the effectiveness of the fund in boosting voluntary ways to protect water quality.

“When I was a kid, mountain people would not eat fish out of the North Toe,” he said. “Since 1996 we’ve seen a steady improvement in water quality. More areas are fishable and swimmable. People are coming here to go fishing and paddling.”

As critical as cleaning up rivers and land acquisition has been in the highlands, it’s important, he said, to remember that the water quickly leaves Avery County. “Everybody’s drinking water from up here,” he said.

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The impact of lower funding is already taking its toll, especially downstream. To spread around its dwindling resources, the fund capped grants for wastewater projects at $600,000. As a result, applications from local governments with wastewater and storm water projects have fallen off sharply.

Richard Rogers, executive director of the CWMTF, said the types of connection projects that local governments sought grants for in the past often come with multimillion-dollar price tags. They also aren’t easy to divide into phases.

“It’s not enough to lay the pipe halfway to the wastewater treatment plant,” he said.

Rogers said the low level of funding has made it difficult to pursue larger projects, and it’s also had an effect on expectations.

When McCrory’s budget was released in February, it included an appropriation for the fund for only the first year of the biennial budget. At the time, state budget director Art Pope said the lack of a second year budget amount does not imply the program will be ended, just that a figure had yet to be set.

Rogers said the declining budget and uncertainty about the future has made some potential applicants wary of applying. “Having that recurring funding is critically important,” he said. “When funding is uncertain, when you get funds for one year but aren’t assured of the next, people are not as willing to complete an application.”

RiverLink’s Cragnolin said one of the things most as risk is the willingness to pursue projects that seem out of reach. The CWMTF has enabled small towns, landowners interested in conservation and the area’s land trusts to think big.

“All across the state we’ve seen people think about taking on big projects and seeing them through,” she said. “If we continue to see this kind of low funding, they’ll stop doing that, stop planning, stop thinking big.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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