Water is about to make a big splash in New Hampshire.
In the coming weeks, Gov. John Lynch’s Water Sustainability Commission will issue a much-anticipated report that has liberty and property rights advocates on edge.
The New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, coincidentally, will stage a symposium on water issues and policy next month with the New Hampshire Municipal Association and the state Department of Environmental Services.
If concerns about supply, cost, protection, access and control have seemed like a steady, annoying drip in the background for some time, they are about to converge in a gushing flow through public policy discussion and debate.
Lynch will pour water on the desk of his successor as he leaves office.
By executive order, Lynch established the 14-member commission last year to come up with a plan to protect water as a valuable resource.
His order highlighted the importance of water, not just in daily life, but for tourism, recreation, business and consumers.
“The high quality of life in New Hampshire fosters economic and population growth that, in turn, leads to an increased demand for water and changes to the landscape, both of which have the potential to significantly impact water resources,” Lynch wrote.
The governor directed the commission to look at both surface and groundwater, and prioritize actions to preserve water resources and see they are managed to protect New Hampshire’s economy and quality of life.
The commission is supposed to report on needs for water supply, wastewater disposal and storm water management, and make recommendations for infrastructure and investments.
Chairman John Gilbert said Friday the report is near completion.
“We are targeting the release for after the election,” he said. “There is so much noise now around the political process, we’re concerned the report could get lost in that and the issue is so important we would like it to get good attention.”
Gilbert isn’t spilling the contents just yet, saying it is only fair the governor learns first since this is his commission. But the report will recommend ways for the state to manage and protect water 25 years into the future, he said.
This will be a strategic plan, not one that produces specific legislation. That will be left to the state’s policy-makers, Gilbert said.
“The report will offer strategic goals with supporting recommendations,” he said. “We think it does provide a framework for that long-term vision.”
A total team effort
The commission has been meeting since May 2011. Its website shows more than 50 meetings of the commission and subcommittees.
Working with the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, the commission held five public forums in May attended by an estimated 160 people throughout the state.
Recommendations that emerged from the public through that “water conversation” included calls for regional watershed management crossing political boundaries and focusing regulation “on the common good.”
Another conclusion was water should be priced to reflect not only cost but infrastructure maintenance.
The commission’s work has raised concerns among some property owners and liberty activists about what a state water plan might mean for individuals.
There was even criticism that the commission’s listening sessions — despite being open to the public — leaned too heavily on regulators, environmentalists and businesses.
Ken Eyring of Windham, a founder of the Southern New Hampshire 9.12 liberty group, wrote the commission this summer, asking commissioners to respect the constitutional rights of New Hampshire residents.
“Water is an essential element for life. I am deeply disturbed that your commission assumes the state must usurp my property rights to take control of my well water on my property,” Eyring wrote. “Regulation of my well water translates into a direct regulation of my liberty.”
Michael Licata, vice president for public policy with the Business and Industry Association, is involved with the planning of the Nov. 9 symposium and also serves on the governor’s commission.
“I absolutely don’t think they have anything to fear from the commission’s report,” Licata said.
The commission is taking a holistic approach to what the state can do to improve water quality and protect the resource, he said.
“The commission is not looking to dictate to people how they should use their water,” Licata said.
Licata suggests the commission will instead look at ways to enable communities to reach across their borders to manage and protect water in a cost-effective manner.
Look at the commission’s charge and you will see it a fairly broad one that calls for a vision for water in the future, he said.
Gilbert said the commission will acknowledge that tension exists between the rights of property owners and the public’s interest in water.
“We don’t have recommendations about how that gets resolved,” Gilbert said. “The issue needs to be thought about and thought about carefully. Those rights have to be protected, managed and preserved in a way that balances the long-term interests of the state as a whole.”
Top water experts to attend
The BIA symposium will hear from the state’s water division chief, Harry Stewart, and federal Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Curt Spaulding. Dana Bisbee, former state Enviromental Services commissioner, will discuss legal issues.
The symposium will look at infrastructure, development issues and concerns over the Great Bay Estuary.
There have been a lot of big concerns with water just below the surface, if you’ll pardon the pun, Licata said.
So the emerging conversation is timely, in his view.
“Hopefully, it is bringing this issue to the forefront,” Licata said.
Gilbert said it is driven by considerations including an aging infrastructure and the development bound to follow the anticipated wave of baby boomer retirements in New Hampshire.
The water feels OK now, Gilbert said, but before long the state could experience problems with the resource that would be detrimental to citizens and businesses.
“There is an opportunity to proactively manage the resource before it becomes a crisis,” Gilbert said.
Ultimately what the state wants in 25 years is water quality and quantity that is “as good or better than it is now,” Gilbert said.
The 2012 New Hampshire Water Symposium When: Nov 9, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Where: Center of New Hampshire, Radisson Hotel, Manchester What: Daylong conference dedicated to water issues and policy Cost: $95 for BIA members; $130 for nonmembers. Register: Online at BIAofNH.com or call 224-5388, ext. 116