Years of Planning Down the Drain?

I was glad to read in Lisa Sorg's article in the Independent ( ) a couple of weeks ago that OWASA is contemplating emergency back-up plans for providing water to Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  But I was concerned to read that one of the options under consideration is the construction of a new water-intake at Jordan Lake.

While we all hope that the drought will break before we run out of water, it is only prudent to consider what our back-up plans will be.  Even with more drastic mandatory conservation measures on the way next week ( ), it is possible (but not likely) that our water supply could run out.

OWASA apparently has several options under consideration ( ):


"Buy Water from Neighboring Communities OWASA’s drinking water system is interconnected with water lines from Durham, Hillsborough, and Chatham County. These connections have the combined capacity to provide our community with up to 8 million gallons per day (mgd) of treated drinking water, but volumes in this range will not likely be available during the drought.

"Highly Treated Reclaimed Wastewater (RCW) We are currently producing high quality wastewater that meets the regulatory requirements for non-potable (non-drinking) reclaimed water uses, but a permanent reclaimed water system (now under construction) to provide approximately 0.6 mgd to UNC chiller plants will not be completed until the spring of 2009. A temporary reclaimed water line to the UNC campus is feasible, but would be very expensive, and could not supply enough water to offset the worst-case drought scenario. As an option of last resort, a larger (temporary) line could pump greater volumes of RCW back to University Lake, but this is not preferred.

"Drill Wells and Use Ground Water The amount of water available from wells in our region is highly variable and unpredictable. It is unlikely that we could get more than 1 mgd from a series of many new wells not nearly enough to prevent running out of water.

"Jordan Lake Jordan Lake has been more drought-resistant than local reservoirs with smaller watersheds. Although OWASA holds a storage allocation to use 5 mgd of Jordan Lake water, no facilities, such as an intake, pumps, or pipelines currently exist, and no contractual agreements are in place with other utilities to provide access to our Jordan Lake water. It is important that OWASA and others work together to ensure that this valuable regional resource is shared equitably and efficiently in the future.

"Haw River It appears to be feasible to install a temporary pipeline to pump Haw River water from a location in southwestern Orange County directly to the Cane Creek Reservoir. Although very expensive, this option appears to be the most feasible way to prevent running out of water.

"Financial Incentives for Increased Conservation Incentive programs, such as cash rebates for replacing older less water-efficient plumbing fixtures, represent potential near-term water savings of less than 1 mgd and could not be implemented quickly enough to achieve significant water reductions; nor could this option overcome the worst case of running out of water. However, conservation will continue to be an important component of our water supply plans."


I am particularly concerned about the Jordan Lake option for several reasons:

1. Our community has been working toward the goal of growing within the means possible using the Cane Creek Reservoir, University Lake and the Stone Quarry.  Our commitment to live within our means is (or should be) a model for other communities across North Carolina.  By contrast, the Piedmont-Triad Regional Water Authority is looking to grow and grow as much as possible potentially drawing still more water from water sources that are over 50 miles away, all in the name of continuing the most unsustainable sort of sprawling, suburban, automobile oriented development.  If we go to Jordan Lake, the temptation to grow by leaps and bounds in the OWASA service area will be increased.  And the example we will be setting for North Carolina is just more of the same.

2. Worse yet, as I understand it, if we develop a new in-take on Jordan Lake it will have to be done in conjunction with neighboring jurisdictions whose growth has recently been unrestrainedly automobile oriented.  Several area local governments have taken steps toward a more planned-growth model (placing a higher emphasis on walkability and transit-orientation).  But until our neighbors are exercising the kind of self-restraint that Orange County has been pursuing (and do so in a legally binding way through joint planning agreements), it doesn't seem wise to me to give those local governments still more access to drinking water.

3.  On top of everything else, the quality of water from our present supply is distinctly higher than the water in Jordan Lake.  While working to make Jordan Lake cleaner is a priority for our local governments, the University Lake and the Cane Creek watersheds are highly protected aleady.  Why would we want to permanently throw Jordan Lake water into the mix?

I wouldn't completely rule out Jordan Lake forever, but I think we need to see our neighbors commit to a less car oriented form of development for the future before we collaborate on tapping into Jordan Lake.  Until then, I hope we'll take Jordan Lake off the table.


Total votes: 156


I never understood why OWASA didn't go to a more rapidly-escalating rate structure when they raised the rates in October. When you go from block 2 to block 3 there is a 18% increase, from block 3 to block 4 a 35% increase, and from block 4 to block 5 a 75% increase. So someone who uses just under 16,000 gallons of water a month is paying at a rate slightly less than 59% greater than someone who uses less than 6,000 gallons a month. I can assure you that someone who uses 15,000 gallons of water a month is not going to be deterred by such puny rate increases. The OWASA board needs to put some really serious pain into the rate structures of their residential users who use more than 7,000-10,000 gallons a month (I'm trying to cut some slack toward large families but I think we should be aiming for a 30 gal/day/person figure). I really enjoyed hearing about the fellow in Raleigh who got a $1000 fine last Friday for washing his car.

People need to express this viewpoint. There are many in the community who just want whatever it takes to keep the status quo.

I continue to believe that we have many more opportunities to conserve water than we have implemented. I was reminded of this again while standing at the water fountain at the Culbreth Middle School gym and watching the adjacent "spitting basin" with its continuous flow of water down the drain.


Thanks for this thoughtful post, Mark.  Like some others, I've been concerned about Orange County's growth plans and their effects on our water supply.  After the 2002 drought, developers promised us that such events were overwhelmingly rare, and we shouldn't worry about our water supply.  And since '02 there's been significant growth in this county.  

 Now, with Carolina North on the table, one has to wonder about how it might affect our water supply.  I know we have very limited influence over what UNC does, and their arguments for CN have at least some merit anyway.  But if CN, and the satellite development that will inevitably come with it, happens, won't this mean that we're seriously over-stretching our water supply capabilities?  If we're running out of water now, what will the drought of 2011 do to the county if there's no added capacity? I know that current plans account for growth, but do they also account for all the hundred-year droughts we seem to keep having?

Also, though I know transportation issues regarding CN have been addressed ad nauseum, I remain convinced that putting a big chunk of UNC several miles from another big chunk of UNC will inevitably contribute to precisely the type of car-happy development you rightly criticize. 

 I believe that the quarry is due to come online in 2030 (correct me if I'm wrong), and it should solve some of our current capacity problems.  I absolutely agree with you that we should try to 'live within our means' with regard to water, but if that entails severe restrictions on growth in the county (which would seem to follow), is it really feasible?  Is there a viable water supply plan that can accommodate projected growth between now and 2030 with enough reserve capacity to see us through extended droughts that doesn't involve tapping significant new supplies such as Jordan Lake? 

 As an aside related to automobile-based development, do you know if there are any statistics regarding vehicle-miles traveled per capita in Orange vs. say, Wake County?  It would be nice to have a metric to judge how we're doing with land use planning.  

An article in the February 2008 issue of National Geographic called the 1900s the wettest century in the last millenia. The article specifically addresses recent changes in the west of the United States, but here in the MidAtlantic we've had regular "droughts" for the last twenty years. Chapel Hill was on varying levels of water restrictions most the time that I was in college.

In approving future development, how water is going to be used has to be considered. That is not saying no one can make any money off their property or that the door is slammed on any one who wants to move here. Look at Whispering Hills, the townhomes in the woods in Carrboro. No lawns and a nice landscape of forest for the residents and the local birds too.



The reclaimed water system will supply 600,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day to four UNC chiller plants. Drinking water is now being used for this purpose. This system is the foundation of an expandable system.

If the state makes graywater systems legal, we will make a quantum leap in efficiency. California and nearly all European countries allow graywater systems.

Someone just emailed me the following question: "What I am puzzled by is how you can resolve your concern with our water supply and the approval of 'dense development' under your tenure as Mayor. The equation is so simple, even I can understand it:  More people/square foot=more water consumption/square foot. Am I missing something here?"

Here is my response:
I am not looking to increase the number of households that are planned for in Carrboro - eg I think the Northern Small Area Plan changes should result in the same average density of population as the current plan has called for.  I am interested in discussing a redistribution of that density across the area - some areas higher, some areas lower.  Hence my push to downzone large areas of the Northern Study Area.

Thanks for making this response to public business public Mark. You've done a exemplary job enteracting with the community online. Better than any elected offcial in North Carolina. Period. (That's isn't hyperbole.)

BTW, ALL the email correspondence about public business done by EVERY elected official and public employee is public record.

We need to get state laws passed funding open data requirements for all government in NC. Digitizing all the paper data is going to be expensive. Though costs are dropping.

That way we can search for public data using a web browser and not be subject to delaying tactics under the guise of making photocopies or searching through physical files & databases. (end rant) :)

Unfortunately  it will take  the infliction of some pain, either in the pocketbook or in their own access to water,  for some people to get the picture that we have a very serious drought on our hands.  There are  people who are doing little to nothing to conserve water despite the huge coverage of the drought and the excellent communication by OWASA about the need to converse and how to do it.    I hadn't heard about the 1000.00 fine for car washing,   but I am glad to hear that there's some enforcement behind the regs.   People who are trying to comply with the rules get frustrated when there is no consequence for flouting them.     

I do have one question though--how much of our water are we losing through our system pre-consumer?  Have we done all we can to close that gap?  Just wondering--I saw in the paper that Durham loses something like 14% of its water before it ever hits the tap, and that seems crazy.   What are our stats on this and can we do anything else in  a timely fashion to reduce that number? 

I don't know the stats, but OWASA says that reducing the before-consumer losses (leaky water mains) is a really high priority - it saves water without decreasing revenues.



I don't know what the current stats are, but OWASA has pursued an accelerated plan to replace old mains and eliminate leaks and potential problems in the delivery system. Their pro-active approach has been way more aggressive than neighboring utilities. Hillsborough, for instance, is estimated to be losing as much as 50% of its water through failing pipes.

The latest news from OWASA is that, instead of raising rates to cover lost revenue from reduced demand, they will reduce operating expenses. It's likely that at least some of the money saved will come from scaling back the repair schedule.  


I know that nobody much appreciates someone coming from somewhere else and complaining that things aren't run as they were elsewhere. But, I think I've now been in NC long enough to provide some commentary.

When I first came to this area in '87 during a drought year, from a chronically drought stricken TX, one of the first things I noticed is that even though area residents were complaining of a drought, nobody was doing much about it. Water and electricity were still priced considerably lower than what I'd experienced in other regions, and there was absolutely no concerted effort to encourage people to conserve the precious liquid. Nowhere at the time, did I see Triangle plans to encourage planting only native, drought tolerant ornamentals and xeriscaping. Nor did I see promotion of low flow showerheads, or greywater reusage. Back then rainbarrels and cisterns were all but unheard of around here. All of these and lots more were standard ops in much of the water poor west going back 25-30 years previously. And the water company rate structures at the time seemed to almost reward high volume water wasters. Throughout the droughts of 1987-1989, 1998-2002, and now 2006-2007 I've wondered when this area would get serious about water conservation. It still hasn't.

Twenty years later, there is still not much financial incentive to conserve water from a homeowner's standpoint in some of the local water markets. I don't know the OWASA rate structure, but I appreciated George's comments about the OWASA above. With Orange-Alamance it's a flat $18 plus $3 per 1000 gallons all the way up to a whopping 20,000 gallons use per month. Only over 20K gpm does the rate finally increase to $4.50 per 1000g. So, the homeowner that's invested in low flow appliances and is conscientious about using only the smallest amounts of water who uses under 2000 gallons per month only saves $24 per month over the homeowner who's out wasting 10,000 gallons a month. That's not much incentive to conserve for many people. A tiered "block" system with serious rate increases every 1000-2000 gallons would make more sense.

Furthermore, if we are going to get serious about addressing our long term water needs the codes prohibiting greywater resuse and mandating flush toilets need to be re-written. Other parts of the world have been doing just fine with modern greywater reuse systems, modern composting toilets and other alternatives to septic and sewer systems for quite some time. It's about time that Orange County and North Carolina stepped into the 21st century and reconsidered some long standing predjudices that preclude these types of technologies from being implemented at the residential level.

And commercial and industrial users need serious incentives to cut usage. Rather than exempting carwashes and such, the exemptions and special well permits need to be granted to farmers growing food.

Speaking of that, currently there's yet another carwash being built in Hillsborough across from the Home Depot. Why are carwashes still permitted to be built? From an overall acquifer standpoint, I don't think it matters whether it's on a well or not. It's still a drain on a strained system that does nothing but appeal to vanity. Does using purified drinking water to flush toilets and wash cars make any sense at all?

Mike, you make some good points, but give a little credit where it is due:

1. OWASA charges a premium for users who consume extra (ie the opposite of a volume discount).  Whether those fees are high enough seems legitimately debatable.

2. OWASA does not have any exceptions for carwashing.

3. You can get a free low-flow shower head from OWASA at the front desk (last I checked).  They frequently bring boxes of them to public events to give away.

4. UNC is investing in a water re-use system on an industrial scale.

5. Greywater prohibitions are imposed by the state government and cannot be over-ruled by local governments.

6. The building code in NC does not prohibit waterless urinals; there are many of them on UNC campus.

7.  Despite all that, you are fundamentally correct that there are loads more things that North Carolina could do to use water more efficiently.  All the great things we have going in the OWASA service area could be done in other parts of North Carolina, but (to my knowledge) are not.  Instead most folsk seem to be talking about increasing the water supply through new water-intakes and new reservoirs - completely the wrong approach.

Fair enough, Mark. OWASA is clearly more progressive and proactive than many other area water providers. As mentioned, I'm not an OWASA customer and am not terribly familiar with their policies, though I did look up their tiered block rate structure and it seems to make a lot of sense. Compare it to the aforementioned Orange-Alamance structure or the Hillsborough Town water rates which charge a minimum of 3000 gallons thus discouraging folks from seeing how much under that amount they might get by with.

Here's a question, with Falls and Jordan Lakes low enough to be worked on, why aren't the Army Corps digging them out deeper?

Mike S:

OWASA actually has a progressive rate structure, which has proved to perform better than some other utilities in the Triangle during this drought:
Block 1 (1000-2999 gal) $1.98/kgal
Block 2 (3000-5999 gal) $4.70/kgal
Block 3 (6000-10999 gal) $5.53/kgal
Block 4 (11000-15999 gal) $7.46/kgal
Block 5 (16000+) $13.05/kgal

George C:

You used the example of a 6 kgal/month user vs a 15 kgal/month user.

Using OWASA's bill estimator (which includes flat fees and sewage fees), a household using 6 kgal/month would be billed $67.87; a 15 kgal user would be billed $164.73. For most folks, an increase the size of our cable+internet bill would not be desirable.

WRAL ran a story this morning on the sudden urge to tap Jordan Lake that local municipalities have developed in response to the current drought.  The story is here:

Of particular note is an interview with Durham Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees, who talks in some depth about how drought-resistant Jordan Lake is, and how it has enough water to supply everyone's needs.  I found the piece very depressing.  The title of the story, "Jordan Lake Brims With Liquid Gold" nicely sums up the region's supply-side approach to resources management. 

There seems to be an assumption in this thread that Chapel Hill-Carrboro growth is "planned and reasonable" in comparison to Durham, Chatham, and Wake counties. I challenge part of that assumption. While our growth may be slower than that of our neighbors, it's still exceeding our capacity to deal with it.

Look at SAPFO. It was intended to serve as a feedback mechanism for balancing out the impact of growth on school space and budget needs. Does anyone think it's working?

Neither the school boards nor OWASA are charged with managing growth. Both systems respond to the growth decisions supported by elected officials. And both systems are in trouble. "We don't project our growth stopping -- we're not at a plateau," said Steve Scroggs, assistant superintendent for support services and director of the district's long-range facilities committee. "We're really driving the numbers up as we [the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro] increase our density."

As for OWASA, we live in an area where there are no major rivers inside our political jurisdiction. Our water supply is dependent upon refreshment from outside. I'm not sure alienating our neighbors is a wise idea, especially as the elected boards continue to approve new residential developments.

Between this drought and the known supply shortage coming up before the quarry is online, I think Mayor Foy may have it right in thinking a partnership to develop an southern intake to Jordan Lake is a prudent action. "We don't know whether we're looking at long-term change in our weather patterns," Foy said earlier this month. "If that's the case, the assessment we've made about our water supply is going to be challenged."

I much prefer pulling water from Jordan than from the Haw. But I'd prefer that we stop growing so that we don't need either.

"I much prefer pulling water from Jordan than from the Haw. "

Terri, I don't mean to challenge your thinking on this, but I am curious why you say that Jordan would be better than the Haw?  Is it because pulling from the lake does not affect the natural flow of the river as much?


Water treatment systems are set up to treat the primary types of pollutants found in the community. In communities with industrial users, treatment engineers survey the pollutants used in the industrial processes and treat those pollutants on-site. The goal is to neutralize those unique pollutants at the facility (and at the businesses expense) so that the treatment at the main plant can treat "normal" wastewater. However, the quality of the sludge (what OWASA calls biosolids) coming from Alamance-Burlington tells us that their pre-treatment processes are not even close to the same quality we expect here in Orange County. So I assume, with reinforcement from many Haw River activists, that the effluent being released into the Haw is inequally unacceptable.

Not all 'bad' chemicals found in water come from industry effluent though. In the case of the Haw, in addition to the industrial users from Burlington, there is also a medical incinerator (Stericycle) located on the river just outside of Graham. There's a very active citizen's group that has been sounding the alarm about the impact of this very large incinerator on the safety of the Haw for drinking water for several years now. Unfortunately, the testing required to prove their case is very expensive and while most of the DNR folks we've talked to agree there are problems, they do not have the regulatory power needed to resolve those problems. A Google search on Haw River and Stericycle will give you more details.

The Haw flows into Jordan Lake.


Dilution is part of the water treatment process, and dilution depends on creek/river flow rates. As the drought slows the natural flow of the Haw, which is further reduced by communities to the north of us using more of it to address their own water supply problems, "natural" treatment via dilution is significantly compromised.

It's not like I want to drink water from Jordan. It's just that given two bad options, if I have to make a choice, I pick the one with the greatest dilution. A better choice would be to limit residential growth even further, while doing everything needed to clean up the Jordan watershed now rather than postponing it, as the realtors, builders, and waste treatment operators advocated for during last year's rules hearings.


I see what you are saying, Terri, although I think there is at least one other consideration: Accessing the Haw is decidedly a temporary strategy (above ground pipline along Old Greensboro Highway).  Tapping Jordan Lake is a more permanent (and seductive) arrangement.  At least that is how i understand the situation right now.


I believe the reason no one is seriously talking about dredging the lakes is at least two-fold. First, an environmental impact study would have to be done (and funded) and, even if environmentally acceptable, money would have to be found to do it. Such a study would probably take at least 1-2 years. And if you dredge you risk contaminating what water remains in the lakes. Second, the majority of the holding capacity of our lakes dramatically increases as you go up in height (i.e., most of the water is probably in the top 1/3 or so). Thus the area that would need to be dredged out would be enormous. And where would you put all that material you remove? You wouldn't want to put it along the sides simply to run into the lakes again. I think dredging has been discussed and dismissed for a variety of reasons, including those I listed.

Durham is advancing an initiative to partner with OWASA and Chatham County to install an intake on the western edge of Jordan Lake. Many years ago, OWASA bought land on Jordan for a possible future intake, although this has not been part of OWASA's plan as laid out in the 50 year Master Plan.

Obviously, the general consensus in this region is that growth is essential and the notion of living within the carrying capacities of our bioregions is unrealistic. If OWASA goes along with this plan, much is at risk. OWASA will lose some control and a certain result will be that Durham and Chatham (as well as OWASA to certain degree) will avoid having to institute advance water conservation policies in the short-term.

OWASA's water comes from a watershed that is nearly entirely within the boundaries of Orange County. This is a unique and fortunate situation. It is a huge reason why we have been able to protect our watershed and ensure some of the cleanest water in the state. The Jordan Lake watershed, on the other hand, stretches over many jurisdictions and conatins hundreds and hundreds of point-source pollution nodes. Can you imagine working with all those growth obsessed governments to bring the Jordan Lake watershed up to the standards we have set here?

OWASA - in large part because of the afore-mentioned political and watershed boundary coincidence - has been a model for living within the means of a watershed. Of course, it has not been too hard up until now becasue we have been able to meet our needs with what we've got. Now we are challenged to show resolve and remain true to a vision of local sustainability and not fall for a regional scheme in this time of relative desperation. We need to continue to show leadership by learning and implementing new ways to continue to live within our means. This means advanced water conservation strategies and - here is the monumental challenge - actually breaking from the mob and adopting the natural dictates of carrying capacity to guide us in our land and resource use.

If we cave in to this regional scheme, we lose the opportunity to set that very valuable example. We compromise our water quality. We facilitate growth and short-sighted thinking across the region. And we compromise the gem of a utility that we now have.

There are some who think that now is the strategic time to partner with others on this because they believe we have maximum leverage to upgrade regional policies on growth and resource use. I can't imagine that going along with these other governments to increase supply at a desperate time is going to send the right message, even if there is some minor improvement in growth policies. I believe our "maximum leverage" is best utilized by saying that we will not join in this easy way out and that we will not compromise our model at this time. We need to show resolve at this challenging time.

Additionally, if the state would get it's head out of it's supply pipe and realize the incredible source of inexpensive supply that legalizing graywater systems represents, we would be set on a truly sustainable path. Plus it's an economic stimulus that would create jobs.


Mark's post contains the dilemma:

"Obviously, the general consensus in this region is that growth is essential and the notion of living within the carrying capacities of our bioregions is unrealistic."

"Here is the monumental challenge - actually breaking from the mob and adopting the natural dictates of carrying capacity to guide us in our land and resource use."

And from an archived post from Dan Coleman: "It would be helpful to have a broad discussion of what our carrying capacity might be. Carrying capacity is, of course, an uncertain term. Our carrying capacity may be somewhat different if we have a landfill in Orange County or if we ship our waste elsewhere. Carrying capacity depends on whether the OWASA water supply limits our growth or if it does not."

Hopefully, we can begin that conversation around the dilemma of growth and carrying capacity as part of the BOCC election this year. I had hoped it would be an issue in last year's local election, but this year's drought makes it an issue that will be hard to avoid.

Doesn't seem like we will get much of a discussion of anything in the BOCC race, as all four races are uncontested so far.

Also, it won't last long, but here's a link to an article on this topic:

 Highlights for posterity (with apologies to the Herald Sun and Ray Gronberg):

"If we're going to pay millions and millions of dollars to pull water out of there, and what we're doing is continuing [to grow as] we've always done, and getting to the point where even that isn't enough, what's the point?" [Chilton] said . . . "We don't know whether we're looking at long-term change in our weather patterns," Foy said earlier this month. "If that's the case, the assessment we've made about our water supply is going to be challenged."  At the same time, Foy said, Chapel Hill has "a very strong interest in making sure growth in this area is done right, at a relatively slow pace that can be absorbed."

[Durham and Chatham both have other options available besides using OWASA's intake site.]

Late last week, The Rev. Luther Brooks, a northern Orange resident of 50 years, filed for District 2.  That makes two in District 2, McNeill and Brooks.

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