Potential Jordan Lake intake for OWASA, Durham, & Chatham

Mark Marcoplos's picture

OWASA, Durham, & Chatham County have agreed to jointly explore the possibility of installing a water intake on the west shore of Jordan Lake where OWASA owns property. Our local Orange County governments have some misgivings about the project and these were discussed at the Orange County Assembly of Governments meeting last night, which was also attended by Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Chatham County Commission Chair George Lucier. The following is a statement that I prepared for presentation at that meeting. (I actually ended up talking off the cuff to avoid repeating points that others had previously made.)Statment on proposed Jordan Lake intake: It seems that the decision to enter into a joint evaluation of using Jordan Lake water may be driven more by the perceived needs of Durham and Chatham County than by our’s. We certainly want to be good neighbors, but we should be very careful. We are dealing with complicated issues that affect growth in our region and rely on our understanding of the carrying capacity of our watersheds. Before we move much closer toward a regional water agreement, we need to carefully consider several aspects of our situation.First, we have set the standard for protecting our local watershed through intelligent zoning and acquiring land and easements around our reservoirs. We have set the standard for conservation by partnering with UNC on the water re-use project, by becoming the first municipality to implement year-round water conservation measures, and by adopting a tiered rate structure that will result in reduced water use. We were pro-active in the wake of the great drought of 2001-2002 and set ourselves on a more sustainable course. It was not until this current drought that our neighbors seemed to discover the water conservation strategies that we adopted two droughts ago. We have a well-thought out plan that will greatly increase our available water supply in 2030 when the expanded quarry becomes available. Water use projections reveal that there will be a period of time – maybe 5 years give or take a few – before the quarry is available that we may need additional supply. In 2005, after more than two years of focusing on water conservation as a result of the 2001-2002 drought, the OWASA Board had extensive discussions on the feasibility of meeting our needs during those vulnerable years through conservation and efficiency rather than going to Jordan Lake. We were well aware of the problems that going to Jordan Lake would bring – great expense, possible disruption of communities along the pipeline route, a lower quality of water, possible compromises involving local OWASA control over our resources and costs – all of the same problems that we face now. Except that now we have an additional dilemma. We could find ourselves in the position of, with the best intentions to help our neighbors, enabling the type of uncontrolled growth in this region that we have worked so hard to consciously avoid.Consider this excerpt from Durham’s Resolution 9532 in which they signified their intent to pursue a joint agreement with OWASA and Chatham County to access Jordan Lake:“Whereas, the local government jurisdictions in the Research Triangle Region have responsible and thoughtful land use plans to accommodate the projected growth of our region;”We should pause and give thorough consideration to that assumption. It seems to me that it may be overstating the case for the status quo. In some ways it is a troubling contention. We should certainly have a healthy debate amongst ourselves before we join a venture that holds that assumption and will fuel more growth based on that assumption.In fact, Chatham County’s planning appears to contradict that assumption. Chatham County officials reported that they have approved 1200 new homes for which they don’t have adequate water supplies.Here is the “Water Conservation Goal” that the OWASA Board adopted in April 2005: “To develop, fund, and implement a cost-effective water conservation and demand management program that will meet our community’s long-term water supply needs (through 2050) by making the highest and best use of our local water resources and eliminating the need for costly new water supply sources and facilities” We had good reason then to think that we could institute conservation and efficiency measures that would bring our demand down below risky levels of consumption just before the quarry became available. We still have good reason to believe we can meet our needs without going out of our watershed in pursuit of expensive options with their own set of risks.We have great opportunities to improve efficiency and increase conservation techniques. The expansion of the water re-use system holds great promise. The collection and use of storm water represents a large mostly untapped supply. And we can continue to fix leaks and reduce waste. There is no doubt in my mind that we can meet our needs with these approaches.The final aspect of this issue is in some ways the most important. We have, in OWASA, a jewel of a utility. I believe it is as good and progressive a utility as any in the country. It has been a leader in everything from water conservation practices to granting employees paternity leave. I believe it can continue to be a very important leader in the future as other municipalities look for models in what we have every reason to expect will be an increasingly challenging future. We need an autonomous OWASA to protect our watersheds, provide some of the cleanest water in the state, protect the environment through excellent wastewater treatment practices, and look out for the pocketbooks of ratepayers.I think that we risk a lot by stepping onto the slippery slope that could lead to a regional water utility that will certainly not meet the standards that OWASA achieves. Also bear in mind that these other utilities are revenue producing for their governments whereas OWASA is a separate entity. They have other pressures to sell water, pressures that work against a sustainable future.I think we should declare our independence from this process. At the very least we should delay any joint exploration until we answer questions amongst ourselves such as:"Do we have an obligation to unconditionally help neighbors who get in a bind because they didn't proactively conserve?""Shouldn't we use the situation to leverage water conservation across the region?"“Do we really believe that local governments in the Triangle have responsible and thoughtful land use plans?”Tough questions, but a lot is at stake. 

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9 Comments

nasty Haw River

back in the day....when Big Woods was flooded to

make Jordan...Orange politicos said "we'll never

touch that nasty Haw River water."

(paraphrase, obviously)

never say never.

Here's the problem

You are correct that OWASA is a "jewel of a utility,", however, an isolationist approach is not going to be sustainable in the long run. There really needs to be some degree of regionalization in the management of our water resources. It is nice to think that OWASA can live in it's own self sustaining bubble as long as it wants, but the truth is that water does not exist within municipal boundaries, and it needs to be manged regionally to maximize the efficiency of its allocation.

I'm not suggesting an actual regional utlity, but rather more collaboration between utlities, so towns that are right next to each other are not having completley different ways of managing their water resources. I agree with your last statement about using leverage to encourage conservation at other utilities. However at some point a regional intake at Jordan Lake will be a necessary step; you can debate the validity of the decision to build Jordan Lake in the first place, but it is there now, and a small fraction of the safe yield is currently being used. Like it or not, that capacity is going to be tapped sooner or later. I think OWASA does and should have an interest in being involved once this happens, to be able to help guide the process in the right direction.

Also, although OWASA does not produce revenue for the city, it does depend on revenue from water sales to sustain its treatment and distribution operations, so they too face pressures to sell water that may conflict with a sustainable future. They have just proven to be better at balancing them than some other utlitiles.

Mark, I agree

If area rainfall amounts are viewed over a 10 year period, there is no drought. In point of fact we are above average by more than six inches. The fact is that not enough water infrastructure has been implemented to support the out of control development in Wake and Durham counties. Chatham is on the same path.

Raleigh would like to make their poor planning everyone else's problem, and I suspect that tactic is also tempting to others. Given their poor county planning on many issues, it amazes me how proactive they are on a regional and state basis

I also understand the comment that water does not respect artificial municipal boundaries. However the solution (in my mind) is not one that simply enables developers and their interests as the path of least resistance.

 There must be a better way.

Lake levels?

Why is it that Raleigh and Durham's reservoirs have filled and Cane Creek remains so far below full? Our community has gone from being the best of the worse in terms of water availability to being in the worse shape for the upcoming summer. Clearly this isn't just about conservation or capacity.
Mark Kleinschmidt's picture

Size of the watershed

Terri,

My understanding is that Cane Creek's slower fill rate is due in large part to a much smaller watershed area. Jordan and Falls each have an enormous watershed. Rain falling anywhere within the watershed will make it to the lake and contribute to its re-filling. Cane Creek Res has only a 30 square mile watershed. Filling that resevoir requires rain to fall within that small area. It can rain all day in downtown Chapel Hill, but it has no effect on our water supply -- that water ends up in Jordan Lake. Re-filling of Cane Creek relies on the water falling only within its relatively small surrounding watershed.

In addition, the amount of pervious surface in the watershed also has an impact. Cane Creek's watershed has very low density development rules. This is great for the ensuring the quality of the water, but because so much is allowed to absorb into the ground rather than flow to the resevoir, that lack of impervious surface slows the process relative to our neighboring watersheds. I assume that the dryness of the ground following a drought might also slow down the rate of re-fill as the ground itself rehydrates first before spilling it into the contributing waterways.

 

Quality vs Quantity

I was talking to someone who was on the OWASA board back when the Quarry purchase was being made. He says they made a conscious decision to emphasize quality of water over quantity with the decision to purchase the Quarry. So that aligns well with your explanation Mark.

The challenge seems like coordinating between that OWASA decision and municpal growth decisions. It's pretty obvious that we can't have both clean, sufficient water and a rate of growth that continues the way it has over the past 10+ years unless we expand to Jordan. That's a policy decision between the municipalities and OWASA. I'm glad to see it is being discussed by the Assembly and hope there will be continued, public discussions about the trade-offs. Wish we would have the same discussions around school growth.

 

A better way of comparing systems

Is using the probability of the system 'failing' based on where the storage currently is. OWASA keeps track of this on the last graph on this web page:
http://www.owasa.org/pages/supplydemandgraph.asp

It computes the risk of reservoirs dropping below 20% over the next 18 months based on the month and storage, using the available historical streamflow records. As you can see, 60% storage in April translates to a 5% risk of storage declining to less than 20% over the next 1.5 yrs.

With Durham at 100% storage this time of year, their risk is going to be less than that.

So although OWASA has more "days of supply" left due to having less demand, they do still have some risk of being in trouble over the next year or so. However, this will probably all change depending on what happens over the summer.