On the defensive over the drought and other issues, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker’s “State of the City” address Monday quickly ran out of new ideaseven about water conservation. Meeker called the drought “an uncertain situation” and said it’s not yet clear what it will take for Raleigh to get through it. He promised, however: “We will get through this.”

On other issues, from transit planning to affordable housing, Meeker was even more diffident. About transit, he conceded Raleigh must do “a better job,” but mentioned only that “more buses” should be added over the next five years”and plan for rail sometime in the future,” he said briskly.

He did note that the new comprehensive plan, which he expects to be enacted in 2009, could call for about half of future growth to occur downtown and in “transit corridors.” He said nothing about slowing growth because of water shortages, though.

Challenged by Southeast Raleigh activist Octavia Rainey about affordable housing during a question-and-answer period, Meeker answered that Raleigh “is going to need to look at additional affordable housing downtown,” but he didn’t say where, or how. Rainey had complained that “residential segregation is at an all-time high,” though now it’s between the haves and the have-nots, rather than strictly racial, she said.

Meeker explicitly rejected, however, the notion that the new City Councilwith its supposed “Meeker majority”is already stalled by internal conflicts.

“Some people think there’s something wrong,” he said, if council meetings “aren’t scripted like a play.” But the council’s debates have been healthy, he declared, and already the council has settled long-standing issues like Horseshoe Farm Park (it’ll be a nature park) and whether to increase impact fees on new developments (yes, with larger increases for bigger homes). He also listed infill development (teardowns) as an issue where the rest of his “majority” wanted stronger action than he’s been willing to take.

About the drought, meanwhile, Meeker made no apologies for his or the former council’s actions last year, which many in the environmental advocacy community call timid at best. He noted that Raleigh went to Phase 1 conservation, including limited outdoor watering, in July, and in late October ended all watering except with hand-held hoses.

The Phase 2 restrictions, which take effect Friday, are “the most serious” in the Triangle, he continued. They prohibit all outdoor watering and pressure-washing, close car washes that don’t recycle water, and require builders to recapture the water they use to flush new water mainsa required step before a new house or building can be occupied.

Raleigh was ready to go to Phase 2 in December, but Meeker noted that late fall rains had filled Falls Lake a bit and it never dropped below the city’s official trigger point, which was still 90 days’ supply or lessuntil he and the council decided to go ahead anyway this month.

Meeker was caught off-guard on Friday when the Army Corps of Engineers predicted that, if drought conditions persist, Raleigh’s share of the water in Falls Lake could be exhausted by July.

Groups like WakeUP Wake County are urging the city to quickly craft a list of Phase 3 restrictions.

“Current water information from the Army Corps and climatologists should be a major wake-up call to city leaders and public utility officials,” WakeUP chairwoman Karen Rindge said in a statement Monday. “Unless we take dramatic and immediate action to reduce water use, Falls Lake could run out of water.”

In that vein, City Councilor Thomas Crowder is pushing such ideas as requiring restaurants to use paper plates and cups (less dishwashing) and mandating alcohol-soaked hand sanitizers in all public bathrooms (saving water in sinks). Crowder and Councilor Russ Stephenson also have advocated tiered-pricing systems so that those using the most water pay more for it.

Meeker, though, said he wants to meet with Corps officials first to review the assumptions they used to make their forecast. When that’s done, he said, he’ll propose a daily usage “budget” for Raleigh and recommend additional steps to meet itif any are needed. Currently, Raleigh’s using about 40 million gallons of water a day, down from peak summer usage of about 70 million; the Army Corps’ estimates are based on an average of 45 million gallons a day.

Meanwhile, Meeker said Councilors Nancy McFarlane and Mary-Ann Baldwin will head up a “water conservation council” tasked with stepping up educational efforts about how to use less. Meeker has asked residents to voluntarily limit usage to 35 gallons of water per day per person; average “household” use in Raleigh is about 200 gallons a day now.

Meeker also suggested that the Corps could allow more water to stay in Falls Lake when it does rain, which would increase Raleigh’s available supply. Currently, he noted, 62 percent of the lake’s capacity is reservedleft empty, that isfor flood control, with only 17 percent used to store water for Raleigh and the city’s other municipal water customers.

If the Corps raised the stored-water level just two feet, Meeker said, and reduced the flood-control portion of the lake to about 55 percent, it would increase Raleigh’s water supply by about 50 percent.

Raleigh’s asked the Corps to study doing so, and offered to pay half the estimated $1 million cost, Meeker said.