Testing the waters: Impact of real estate and commercial development in Pittsboro

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/17/21

In the next 20 years, Pittsboro’s population is expected to grow by more than 1,000%, demanding a robust and expansive infrastructure to serve the community’s water and sewer needs. 

Even now, though — with its fewer than 5,000 residents — the town’s water and sewer systems are reaching capacity. 

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Testing the waters: Impact of real estate and commercial development in Pittsboro

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Editor’s note: This article is the third installment in a series exploring Chatham County’s intricate water and sewer systems. This week, the News + Record investigates water conditions in Pittsboro, where aggressive real estate and commercial development are severely straining the town’s modest infrastructure.

PITTSBORO — In the next 20 years, Pittsboro’s population is expected to grow by more than 1,000%, demanding a robust and expansive infrastructure to serve the community’s water and sewer needs. 

Even now, though — with its fewer than 5,000 residents — the town’s water and sewer systems are reaching capacity. 

“We’re already there,” Town Manager Chris Kennedy told the News + Record. “We have to do something.”

As we’ve examined in earlier installments of this series, water systems across Chatham County — both under county governance and in municipalities such as Siler City — are feeling the strain of growth demands. But nowhere in Chatham is poised for more dramatic metamorphosis than once-placid Pittsboro. 

Chatham Park alone, the 7,068-acre development in northern Pittsboro, will have room for more than 50,000 new residents across 22,000 anticipating new homes in the next 30 to 40 years. The community will bring new businesses, too, including shops, restaurants, entertainment spaces and more. So far, though, water and sewer are not established to support them. (See the News + Record’s series about Chatham Park, part two of which is in this edition.)

“Our existing wastewater treatment plant has a capacity of 750,000 gallons (per day) and we are growing more and more increasingly towards that,” Kennedy said. “And so from a growth position, we are not going to be able to meet those demands with that plant. We need many more millions of gallons of treatment capacity.”

The town’s water treatment plant also falls short of short-term needs, although its capacity is not immediately in danger of maxing out.  

“From a capacity perspective, we need more water,” Kennedy said. “It’s not as dire (as sewer), but if development occurs at the rate we’re anticipating that it will, we’re only a couple more years from needing substantial amounts of water.”

With drinking water, though, quality is of greater immediate consequence than quantity.

“More on the treatment side, we have issues with water, with its quality,” Kennedy said. 

Pittsboro draws its drinking supply from the Haw River, directly downstream of several industrial plants. Though primary sources have not yet been identified, various contaminants are present in high concentrations. The most concerning is PFAS — Perfluoroalkyl substances — a family of chemicals known as potential carcinogens. 

The town’s PFAS contamination is among the worst in the country. The most recent available research found PFAS levels of 844.8 parts per trillion (ppt) in the Haw River at Pittsboro’s water intake point, the News + Record previously reported. For some perspective, Cary — which draws its water from Jordan Lake — measured 110.6 ppt. Parts of northern and eastern Chatham County, which source water from Durham’s Lake Michie and the Jordan Lake, had just 65.4 ppt.

“So, besides needing more water, we have to improve the water that we have,” Kennedy said.

If nothing changes in Pittsboro’s water and sewer systems, capacity limitations would bear disastrous consequences for the town’s ambitious development plans. When a town nears maximum plant capacities, people get in trouble and town functions start shutting down.

“If you exceed your plant capacity, you will overflow your plant,” Kennedy said. “You will violate your permit, and the state will send you what is called a notice of violation.” 

What’s more, ongoing development — such as Chatham Park — would be stalled.

“You just can’t grant permits anymore,” Kennedy said. “You end up in a functional moratorium.”

Fortunately, “we will not get to that point,” he added.

Solutions are in place

There’s good news and bad news about the town’s water/sewer conundrum. 

First, the good: After much time and deliberation, town staff and the board of commissioners have instituted solutions to address capacity and quality issues that will meet aggressive development requirements.

The town’s sewer, which is nearer maximum capacity than water, will expand almost two-fold within a couple of months.

“We have projects like the Chatham Park Water Recovery Center (officially, the Chatham Park Decentralized Water Resource Recovery Facility),” Kennedy said. “It’s about to go live here, hopefully in the next 60 days.”

The facility will add another 499,000 gallons of sewer capacity per day in town.

There’s also the “much discussed Sanford sewer line,” Kennedy said, under the state-managed Pittsboro Wastewater Improvement project.

“Our existing 750,000 gallon plant will get decommissioned, and we will pump all of our untreated sewer to Sanford and they will treat it at their Big Buffalo plant,” he said. 

Under state ordinance, Pittsboro may discharge up to 2 million gallons per day to Sanford via a 14-mile force main. The project has been making its way through permitting offices for years, but Kennedy expects it will come to fruition soon after Chatham Park’s wastewater plant is operational.

Water treatment plant upgrades — prioritizing water quality improvement — are also under way.

In a meeting of the town’s board of commissioners last month, the town’s board authorized Kennedy to launch a $3 million installation project at Pittsboro’s current water treatment plant to be completed within about a year. The addition will include a granular activated coal (GAC) filtration system that can remove about 90% of all PFAS from the drinking supply. It will also facilitate at least one million extra gallons per day.

In tandem with that project, the town is designing a larger facility with GAC and ion exchange filtration that will process up to 6 million gallons of water per day by 2025. 

At that point, the town’s water capacity should be sufficient until at least 2040. Eventually, however, the town will need as much as 14 million gallons per day.

To meet such demand, the town is partnering with Durham, Chatham County and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority to build a new water plant on Jordan Lake’s western shore. Together, the four entities are known as the Western Intake Partners. When the plant is finally operational, it will fulfil most of the town’s water needs and effectively sidestep water contamination issues that come from the Haw River.

“But that’s a project that we don’t anticipate for probably for another decade to actually provide water to any of our communities,” Kennedy said. “It’s a big project. It takes time.”

The bad news

Here’s the bad news: Unlike water and sewer system projects in Siler City and at the county level, which can be funded over coming decades, the urgency of Pittsboro’s expansion needs hefty sums right away.

That means user rates will almost certainly increase.

“Our rates are going to suffer,” Kennedy said. 

It’s not fair, but it’s unavoidable.

“It’s a problem that we didn’t create,” he said of the PFAS contamination introduced upriver. “It’s not right for our residents, especially as a small community, to be forced to spend millions of dollars because of others polluting the water we have to drink.”

But in the short term, at least, no one else is going to address the problem or front the expense.

“So you take a $3 million project that adds on top of a $5 million budget, and then you look at a long term project that’s going to add maybe $20 million to that budget over a few years — the rates have to make that up,” Kennedy said. “And it’s truly unfortunate, because our residents in the town itself weren’t involved in that, and sometimes we just have to deal with it. And, you know, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Kennedy and his staff are still pursuing financing options such as private loans or potential grants. But there will be no way to mitigate costs entirely to spare town residents inflated rates in coming years.

“I do not see a scenario where the rate won’t increase,” he said.

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



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