A growing concern

Testing the waters: Chatham leaders plan utility’s capacity growth

Posted 2/17/21

Editor’s note: In this first of a series, the News + Record looks at Chatham’s intricate water utility system — how the county develops and maintains water infrastructure, and how it plans to …

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A growing concern

Testing the waters: Chatham leaders plan utility’s capacity growth

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Editor’s note: In this first of a series, the News + Record looks at Chatham’s intricate water utility system — how the county develops and maintains water infrastructure, and how it plans to address growth demands over coming decades. Later installments will explore details of infrastructure development at the municipal level, and how sewer capacity demands are addressed.

Chatham County is barreling toward a new identity.

In its eastern parts, aggressive real estate development — led by Chatham Park Investors in Pittsboro — promises to swell the local population 10-fold over the next 20 years.

In the west, impending Siler City industry — especially at the 1,802-acre Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) Site — will introduce new companies operating major facilities. With them will come thousands of new residents settling in to join the town’s burgeoning heavy industrial market.

But what happens behind the scenes to ensure that critical infrastructure can support the county’s bid for dramatic population growth and commercial expansion?

“A lot,” says Chatham County Assistant Manager Bryan Thompson.

“Chatham County’s future water supply planning efforts ... help the county ensure that the necessary improvements, partnerships, and resources are in place to meet the public water demand of today,” he said, “and for those that will be realized in the future.”

The first step in understanding how the county’s intricate water utility system functions, Thompson said, is to understand who’s in charge of what.

“I think that’s something that we see with some frequency,” he said, “that some people don’t understand who has authority under what systems and who’s ultimately, you know, in responsible charge.”

A common misconception: thinking the county government has ultimate jurisdiction over Chatham utilities, including water. Often, that responsibility starts and ends at the municipal level (the subject of future articles in this series). But Chatham County itself still cares for a vast network of systems.

A breakdown

Chatham’s water allocation is unusual. Most counties don’t own and operate their own water systems.

“A lot of times it’s the larger municipalities that extend their infrastructure out to some of the areas of the county,” said Larry Bridges, Chatham County’s utilities director. “So, Chatham County is unique in that respect.”

Yet more unique is that Chatham operates not one, but three distinct water systems across the county.

The first encompasses much of eastern Chatham, excluding Pittsboro and its jurisdiction and the northeastern corner of the county. Water to this region — known as the North water distribution system — comes from Jordan Lake, but Chatham doesn’t facilitate water collection itself.

“We do not pull raw water from Jordan Lake, we actually purchase raw water from the town of Cary, who owns the intake on the lake,” Bridges said. “And then we take that raw water and treat it at our water plant.”

In the Asbury water distribution system, covering south-central Chatham County, water comes pre-treated from the Cape Fear River via the town of Sanford. Sanford also supplies about 90% of the water used in the Southwest water distribution system which directly abuts Siler City.

In the past, much of this area was serviced through an agreement with Siler City, but now only about 10% of the water supply is directed from the municipality. Siler City draws water from the Rocky River.

“We used to, up until about two and a half years ago, actually get more water from Siler City to supply water to this area,” Bridges said. “But with the Mountaire chicken plant coming online, they needed to meet that additional demand. So to do that, we had to actually no longer use that interconnection with Siler City, so that they could use that demand to supplement for the addition of the chicken plan.”

So far, Chatham’s three water systems are adequately supplying resident needs.

“But water is a fleeting source and natural resource,” Bridges said, “and we need to all work together to ensure that everyone has the water supply that they need to meet future growth projections.”

Future growth

Much of the county’s anticipated growth over coming decades will come within incorporated municipalities which have dedicated water systems.

But “the county can anticipate some ancillary growth pressures as a result of these primary growth factors,” Thompson said.

To keep pace with escalating demand, the county is pursuing a regional water system in collaboration with other government and private entities, together known as the Western Intake Partners.

The group includes Chatham County, Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA), Durham and Pittsboro.

“Those four partners have come together to start doing the initial design of a regional plant that will be on Jordan Lake,” Bridges said.

The facility would have an initial processing capacity of 33 million gallons per day with a plant expansion capacity of up to 54 million gallons per day. The cost will be about $80 million.

The project has been under consideration for some time, Bridges said, but it’s “finally getting some traction.”

“This is a long and tedious process,” he said. “You’ve got to go through permitting, environmental impacts, you got to go through easement acquisitions, you got to first establish the governance piece, who’s kind of going to be responsible for what from an ownership and maintenance standpoint ... Then you’ve got the physical design and construction of the plant, and then all the distribution lines that get it to all the different partners.”

It’s an ambitious undertaking, but hastening demand doesn’t permit the county much time for deliberation. If all goes according to plan, the plant will be operational in 2033.

Other possible infrastructure expansion plans include a partnership with Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina and Sanford to expand the latter’s water plant and intake capacity, thereby allocating more for distribution across Chatham County.

Another proposal would introduce new interconnections between county sources and with strategic partners along the county lines to better distribute currently available water.

“We’re trying to exhaust all options when it comes to water supply,” Bridges said.

Where does funding come from?

Rumors abound whenever governments initiate big projects. The perennial fear among residents: “Will my taxes go up?”

With respect to water supply, the answer is “No.”

“Almost exclusively, that would never be the case,” Thompson said.

“Some systems, if you look around North Carolina and at the various local government enterprise utility systems, you might see where a utility is operating in less than a sustainable way,” he said, “and so you may see contributions from the general fund. But that’s not the case in Chatham.”

Counties manage money and expenses via different funds. The primary — a “general fund” — is where tax money pools. Utilities, however, are funded from the appropriately named “utility fund” which collects money from utility rates.

“The largest source of revenue for operating is water sales,” said Darrell Butts, Chatham County’s budget director. “That’s across the board — residential, commercial and industrial. The rates vary based on usage, but that is the vast majority.”

Since usage will only increase to meet demands of a growing population, individual rates are likely to remain about constant.

“As far as infrastructure for future projects, future growth,” Butts said, “much like we do in the general fund, we have a utilities capital reserve, where we put money aside where we can and when we can to fund those projects that we know are coming up or coming online.”

“So whenever we talk about costs, usually to the public, we’re not talking in terms of taxes,” Thompson added. “We’re talking about rates and things along those lines. So it’s easy to get those mixed up in the conversation. So having that kind of delineated out is probably really useful.”

Next week, we look closer at what municipal governments are doing to prepare for increased water demand — notably in Pittsboro and Siler City.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.


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