What’s next in addressing the county’s wastewater needs?

Appointed group waits to hear feedback about ideas it has presented to board

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Last November, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners created the Northeast Chatham Wastewater Study Commission — a 12-member group of citizens brought together to study future growth and wastewater treatment options in the northeastern part of the county. Liz Rolison and Perry James serve as co-chairpersons of the commission, which met five times before making its final report to county commissioners last month.

This week, we follow up with Rolison and James to check in on key details of the group’s presentation and to see what’s next in the process to tackle the wastewater needs of the northeast portion of the county.

Why was the wastewater study commission formed?

For several years, NE [northeast] Chatham residents have expressed concerns to Chatham County management and board members regarding persistent wastewater issues. Concerns included ongoing problems with the existing privately owned wastewater package plants, proposed systems for new developments, and a belief that a more sustainable wastewater solution is needed for NE Chatham.

A Study Commission option was reviewed in various meetings with County Manager Dan LaMontagne and was approved by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners in September 2021. Members included a diverse group of subject matter experts possessing extensive engineering, academic, finance and business experience.

The stated purpose of the study commission was to: 1) define the “problem” and hopes for the outcomes from the study; 2) identify a list of options to explore; 3) identify additional information needed; 4) reach consensus on information to be included in a Phase 1 final report that will capture the viable options to inform work on Phase 2; and 5) development of final report and recommendations.

Why is this issue so critical to Chatham County?

NE Chatham County is one of the more densely populated areas of Chatham County, yet there has never been a comprehensive wastewater plan developed for this region. Currently, this region is served by 14 privately owned wastewater treatment plants and more are planned. Over the last five years, these plants have almost twice as many violations as the surrounding municipal facilities (in Chatham, Lee, Orange and Durham counties), and yet they are processing less than 4% of the volume of wastewater of these larger facilities. Monthly residential sewer rates are 49% higher than surrounding municipal rates and commercial rates are more than 100% higher. Discharge into local creeks (which doesn’t meet required nutrient levels) and sewage spills are impacting our environment. Simply put, the current approach is not sustainable.

The lack of adequate wastewater services has also negatively impacted commercial growth in the county, resulting in Chatham County having only about 10% of its property tax base being commercial. This restricts the amount of available businesses and amenities and will, in time, impact the tax equity in the county. Most of the surrounding counties have a range of 20% to 40% commercial tax base. Because commercial properties generally have fewer county services associated with them versus residential, this lack of equity will likely force county taxes higher.

While the Study Commission members had different opinions on exactly how Chatham County should best manage growth, we are in consensus that NE Chatham must have a wastewater strategy that ensures adequate infrastructure for the current and future development that is being approved in this region.

How did the work you did line up with what the county asked for?

The Wastewater Study Commission started by developing a problem statement to guide our efforts on this project which was unanimously agreed to by all members of the study commission. We then developed a list of options (potential solutions) for investigation. We did a high-level investigation (within the boundaries laid out by Chatham County) and then voted on our final recommendations. All of our research and findings were documented in our final report and presentation, which was made to commissioners on Sept. 19.

A point of difference that became apparent early in this process was that the Study Commission was focused on long-term sustainable solutions — while the county was more interested in short-term solutions that continued to depend on the existing privately owned wastewater package plants. While the Study Commission supports operational improvements to these private facilities while a long-term solution is pursued, we strongly believe this is a short-lived strategy that is simply not sustainable.

What were your recommendations and action points?

The Wastewater Study Commission recommended three long-term options for further study in Phase 2:

• Extension of the Durham County (Triangle WWTP) system to NE Chatham

• Extension of the City of Durham (South Durham WWTP) system to NE Chatham

• Construction of a NE Chatham County Regional Wastewater Facility

The first two recommendations involve a partnership with either Durham County or the City of Durham where NE Chatham County would build a collection system from the partner facility into NE Chatham County (along U.S. Hwy. 15-501). Existing facilities and new development would then be responsible for building pipelines to connect to the main trunk according to county requirements.

Durham County is our leading recommendation based on: 1) they are seeking a partnership to support their case for expanding their discharge permit; 2) their WWTP has more than sufficient existing capacity; and 3) their high-quality treatment process improves nutrient levels in Lake Jordan.

Action items recommended for Phase 2 include:

• Engineering demand study to confirm wastewater demand projected in the study area over the next 30-50 years

• Discussions with current private wastewater system owners to explore their willingness/interest in transitioning their service areas to achieve a better, long-term solution

• Further discussions with Durham County and City of Durham to work out potential partnership arrangements

• Assessment of whether there is adequate demand to make a regional plant economically feasible

• A hydraulic study to determine the feasibility and cost of moving wastewater from the study area to the selected WWTP.

What is your take on the county’s response?

At the conclusion of our presentation, we received thanks from several of the commissioners, but we did not get any specific responses on the recommendations we made for Phase 2 or the CCBOC’s planned next steps for Phase 2.

Based on comments from the county manager at the conclusion of the presentation, we believe the county plans to prioritize meeting with the private owners to discuss interim steps they can take to improve current operations. Also mentioned was a scaled-down demand study performed in this region once the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is completed.

Despite the strong findings that we have presented to the county, we have not received any feedback from the county to indicate that they plan to pursue a long-term solution for NE Chatham County. Instead of waiting on completion of the UDO, we feel that the county should pursue concurrent work to: (1) initiate reviews and studies of at least the Durham County partnership model, initially using estimated demand projections; (2) study an option to create a special sewer district in NE Chatham County; and (3) review these plans with private operators in assessing the strategies for evolving the plants to more collection versus processing operations.

What’s the first step, then?

As noted in this discussion, the Wastewater Study Commission urges the county to move forward now with investigation of the Durham County partnership option following the steps laid out in Response #4. NE Chatham County missed the opportunity to potentially join the Sanford service extension planned by Pittsboro, and we do not want to miss another good opportunity. The time to act is now, while Durham County is developing their long-term plans for the future direction of their wastewater facilities.

Give us a sense of how well-gelled the group was on its recommendations ...

The Wastewater Study Commission included 12 Chatham County resident volunteers who represented a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds related to wastewater.

The Study Commission was unanimous in agreeing on the problem statement, list of options (potential solutions) and on our top recommendation of extension of the Durham County (Triangle WWTP) to NE Chatham. The City of Durham option had one dissenting vote (largely due to City of Durham’s long-term plans not being aligned with this option). The recommendation for construction of a NE Chatham County Regional wastewater system had a slight majority vote (dissenting votes were concerned about cost, permitting and timeline, and felt other options were better choices for the study area).


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