SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Two summers ago, the public utility responsible for delivering raw water to hundreds of thousands of people in the Cape Fear region hit its absolute limits.
The system broke its output record around Memorial Day 2019, pumping out more than it’s designed to deliver for three consecutive days May 28-30, peaking at 100.8% capacity.
Though each participating public customer has its own independent groundwater sources, New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick counties’ utility systems are overwhelmingly reliant on raw water delivered by the regional, mostly unknown provider: Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA).
Cutting it that close can have dire consequences: Firefighters require a certain amount of water pressure in a pipeline; exceeding an engineers’ design can increase the likelihood of mechanical failures.
Last summer, the pandemic bought the network of utilities time. Demand didn’t near 2019 levels, as government restrictions dampened seasonal population swells that typically fill empty beach houses.
Back in 2019, the utilities were faced with an unholy combination of bad luck and untimely planning. A moderate drought swept the southeast, prompting people to water their lawns en masse to relieve scorched grass. While planned, expansion projects hadn’t broken ground to accommodate population growth. Cape Fear Public Utility’s temporary utility repairs to its own independent raw water pipeline ran precariously close to Memorial Day weekend, prompting higher-than-usual reliance on the regional water supply. Pender County’s limited personnel meant the utility could only handle half of what it was capable of treating.
This summer, with pandemic restrictions lifted, a herd of tourists is certain to arrive. The U.S. Drought Monitor is reporting a moderate drought across southeastern, N.C. — which may prompt déjà vu among utility providers.
Droughts can also lower river levels, which could impede LCFWSA’s ability to pull in as much water as it needs.
“I won’t say I’m not at all concerned, any,” said Kenny Keel, Pender County Utilities director, “but I’m a lot more comfortable going into Memorial Day weekend this year than I have been for the last couple of years.”
LCFWASA pumps untreated water from just west of Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Cape Fear River in Riegelwood, all the way down to the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, north of the Isabel Holmes bridge in Wilmington. Water travels through a 48-inch pipeline that stretches 24 miles and crosses the river twice.
Crews are working to install a second, 54-inch parallel pipeline that traverses the same path. Once online, the $37 million project will immediately increase LCFWASA’s delivery output, from 45 millions of gallons a day (mgd) — the current max — to an estimated 62 mgd, without additional improvements necessary. It will also provide redundancy that will protect the system against catastrophe: In 2016 during Hurricane Matthew, the pipe ruptured, losing 12.5 mgd over a two-week period.
As of this month, 10 miles of new parallel pipeline have been laid. After final cleanup, interconnections checks, and line testing, LCFWASA’s executive director Tim Holloman expects the parallel line to be running by the fall, or at least the end of the year.
Demand began climbing earlier this week, reaching 38.6 million gallons (85% of capacity) Monday — the highest weekday of usage for most all water systems.
“We do anticipate we’ll have some high days like that,” Holloman said. “Just maybe not as many in a row.”
2019’s close call prompted leaders to adopt a new emergency response plan. After five consecutive days at 85% capacity using a more conservative, 43 mgd ceiling, LCFWASA will notify its downstream customers (the utilities — not the public). After three consecutive days above 90%, LCFWASA will issue a formal notice to customers, requiring them to impose water-use restrictions on their customers.
As the provider, LCFWASA oversees a systemwide balancing act. When the players all need water simultaneously, LCFWASA can orchestrate getting consuming utilities to release the gas momentarily by maximizing or activating other raw water sources for the benefit of all.
Nine months out of the year, none of this is relevant. But water systems must be designed to meet peak demand.
“We’re just having to monitor,” Holloman said. “We’re not sure exactly what the patterns are going to be this summer.”
First stop on the line, 13 miles downstream, is Brunswick County’s Northwest Water Treatment Plant. Designed to treat a maximum of 24 mgd, the 1985 conventional treatment plant is currently being expanded for the first time to 48 mgd. Officials began planning the expansion after the adoption of the county’s 2006 Water Master Plan, according to Brunswick County Utilities director John Nichols.
Monday, the plant treated 85% of its capacity. By Thursday, demand climbed to 93% of capacity, county records show.
Aside from the Northwest Water Treatment Plant, the county also sources groundwater from 14 wells at its 211 Water Treatment Plant, capable of treating 6 mgd. Between the two plants, systemwide capacity has been in the 80th percentile all week.
Friday morning, the county issued a Stage 1 Water Conservation Alert, asking customers to take on voluntary measures to reduce non-essential water use. In 2019, the alert remained in effect for 94 days.
Even with the pandemic, peak capacity at the plant reached as high as 97% last year and 88% across the whole system, averaging 55% year-round at the plant and 53% in the system.
The biggest strain on demand is caused by irrigation, Nichols explained. “The primary factor influencing the high summer peak demands is the water usage due to irrigation, which can be managed to an extent with public education.” Nichols shared in a statement.
Steps like the public alternating lawn watering in accordance with their street address as advised by their utility, avoiding the critical 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. block, and watering after dusk are most effective at reducing demand, Nichols explained.
The onslaught of growth has hit Brunswick County especially hard; it’s the fastest-growing county in the state, having added 35,000 people over the past decade. Still, Nichols pointed out the recent swell (the county approved 4,000-plus rooftops earlier this month) won’t strain current system demand.
“We often hear a lot about the amount of growth and development coming to Brunswick County; one key point to remember is that the bulk of the development that is currently in the planning and design stages will not be put online until after the water treatment plant is expanded,” Nichols added.
Should it remain on schedule, the Northwest Water Treatment Plant expansion will wrap up by June 2022, leaving this summer and one more high-demand May next year before the system feels much-needed capacity relief.
Next stop on the pipeline is Pender County’s water treatment plant, located just north of the New Hanover County border, west of U.S. 421.
Pender’s plant is permitted to treat 2 mgd, but is capable of treating 4 mgd. But because it requires additional personnel and is awaiting a permit to do so, Pender County Utilities is limited to 2 mgd.
Back in 2019, PCU was entirely reliant on LCFWASA’s raw water deliveries (though it does have emergency interconnections with the Town of Wallace and Surf City). Over Memorial Day weekend, the utility pumped out 108% of its capacity on its peak day of demand.
“We were in really bad shape during that period because our only source of water was coming from our water plant on [Highway] 421,” said Keel, PCU’s director. “We were pushing as much water as we could to the Hampstead area and it basically was not enough that weekend.”
Last August, the utility’s first groundwater well came into operation, with a second starting up in January. Installing the two wells was the county’s Band-Aid solution to find more water as quickly as possible.
“The two wells were the result of our brainstorming of, ‘How the heck are we going to have enough water for this area until we can build something additional?’” Keel said.
Recommended and adopted as a result of 2019, work is underway to construct a new 500,000-gallon water storage tank in the Scotts Hill area and install three additional groundwater wells along the Highway 17 corridor. The $7.94 million project is already funded by state and federal programs.
Heading into this summer, Keel said he’s cautious, but comfortable, knowing he has 500,000 gallons a day more than he did in 2019, and won’t need to jockey other providers for it.
“We probably will have usage that’s similar to what we saw in 2019, Memorial Day weekend; I would expect that,” he said. “It’s been kind of dry, not quite as dry as it was then.”
New Hanover County
Last stop on the line is CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. Unlike neighboring providers, CFPUA’s demand issues aren’t onset by its own infrastructure.
Sized to treat 35 mgd, Sweeney has more than enough treatment capacity — it managed 63% of its capacity on its peak day last year. The problem is a lack of readily available raw water on the highest-demand days, when all utilities are pulling from the same source at once.
CFPUA has its own pump station neighboring LCFWASA’s in Riegelwood, with its own pipeline that feeds directly into Sweeney. This independent pipeline can pull a max of 10 mgd. CFPUA draws from both LCFWASA’s and its own line, maximizing reliance on its line during highest demand days.
CFPUA also has two groundwater treatment plants that source from 39 wells: Monterrey Heights, capable of treating 1.02 mgd, and Richardson, which just increased by 1 mgd to a treat a maximum of 7 mgd, with a project to increase it to 9 mgd beginning construction later this year.
Before the recent expansions at Richardson, the groundwater plant peaked at 94% capacity in 2019 and 81% in 2020 and averaged at 58% and 54% between April and July of 2019 and 2020, according to figures provided by CFPUA.
Monterey Heights delivered as much as 164% of capacity on its peak day in 2019 and 159% last year, averaging at 100% of capacity between April and July 2020.
CFPUA also issued a voluntary water advisory Friday morning, asking customers to avoid irrigation on Mondays and alternate watering on other days.
“During drought conditions, these advisories are sometimes issued proactively to ensure climbing demand doesn’t jeopardize the water supply, particularly for critical uses such as fire protection,” Cammie Bellamy, CFPUA spokesperson, wrote in an email.
In the advisory, the utility reminded customers it takes just one inch of water to keep a lawn healthy.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at email@example.com