For its water supply, Orange County depends on what falls from the sky, and what’s fallen from the sky in the past year has largely been sunshine.

Even with Orange County’s conservation efforts, widely considered more proactive than those of their neighbors to the east, the reservoirs are now at just 40 percent of capacity, according to Ed Kerwin, executive director of the Orange County Water and Sewer Authority. In the drought of 2001-02, levels dropped as low as 30 percent.

At a Jan. 24 public hearing, the OWASA board heard feedback about further regulations and considered worst-case scenarios for providing water to its customers should the drought intensify. It took no action, pending further public input.

Orange County is under Stage 2 restrictions. In Stage 3, all irrigation with OWASA drinking water would be banned.

But pushback from the landscaping industry deterred the OWASA board from passing more stringent water restrictions, which would have further limited outdoor irrigation in Stage 2 and Stage 3 water shortages by prohibiting watering with soaker hoses, drip irrigation and microspray systems.

Local landscapers asked the board not to ban hand-watering; other opponents of further restrictions pointed out that some residents use water from their showers to irrigate their outdoor plants.

“We feel singled out,” said David Lee of Bland Landscaping, based in Apex. “It’s easy to pick on people watering their lawns. There should be equity among those using water inside and outside.”

Doug Chapman, a landscaper and member of the Green Industry Council, called the proposed changes “flawed.” He encouraged state and local lawmakers to amend regulations to allow the use of gray water. “If you limit the ability of the homeowner to purchase plants, that’s a death knell to the green industry,” he said. “Bluntly, you will put people out of business.”

Chapel Hill Town Council member Jim Ward pointed out that while OWASA has a contract to sell water to Durham, it is further restricting Orange County residents’ use. The use of private well water is also unregulated. “That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “I’m comfortable with you telling me how much water to use, but not how to use it.”

Since the drought of 2001-02, OWASA has implemented new conservation measures including a rate structure that pegs the price of water to the amount used. In 2003, the board enacted mandatory year-round conservation measures, limiting irrigation to three evenings a week. Three years ago, the Jones Ferry Water Treatment Plant began using recycled water, reducing the burden on the reservoirs by 6 percent to 8 percent.

These measures have helped decrease residential water consumption by 12 percent, and in the summer, lowered peak demand by 20 percent, OWASA Executive Director Kerwin said.

However, weather forecasters predict dry weather will continue through spring, when the reservoirs usually fill. Now Orange County is considering worst-case scenariosall of them extremely expensive, but not as costly as running out of water. “That is not an option,” Kerwin told the OWASA board.

Although Orange County has emergency interconnections with Durham and Hillsborough and Chatham County, it is unlikely those areas will have sufficient water to sell. A more likelyand costlyscenario is pumping recycled water to University Lake, vigorously treating it, and then using it for drinking water.

Similarly, OWASA could pump water from the Haw River to the Cane Creek Reservoir, but it would require state approval and is also very expensive.

Orange County theoretically could tap into Jordan Lake, whose water levels have remained high during the drought, but there is no infrastructure or contractual agreements to access that supply.

“If the choice is between running out of water or spending a lot of money to keep from doing so, we’ll spend the money,” Kerwin said.

Water and growth: Do they mix?

Orange County hosts another community discussion about the water crisis Thursday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m. at the Hogan Farms Clubhouse, 101 Common Way, in Chapel Hill.

The program will focus on concerns about the current water crisis, how Orange County and its residents can prepare for the possibility of recurring droughts in the Southeast, and the county’s long-term plans for growth.

Featured speakers include Moses Carey, six-term county commissioner and former member of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission; Sarah Bruce, director of the Upper Neuse River Basin Association; and David Stancil, director of Orange County’s Environment & Resource Conservation Department.