SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — New Hanover County’s water authority is uncomfortable with a new Army Corps of Engineers study that could end federal management of three regional locks and dams, and possibly hands them over to private industry.
Documentation describing the study does not specifically address what entity would take over managing the dams, if and when the Army Corps decides to back out.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) provided formal comments Monday to the Army Corps, citing concerns about the uncertainty the study raises. In those comments, CFPUA said its drinking water supply could be at risk.
Just above Lock and Dam No. 1 in Reigelwood, Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) maintains an intake “straw” at the Cape Fear River. This raw water source supplies New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender County’s water utilities, serving nearly a half million people.
The Army Corps initiated its disposition study to determine whether the Cape Fear River’s three regional dams should continue to be federally-maintained. The Army Corps’ authorized purpose in overseeing the dams is navigation, a purpose that seems no longer relevant. According to Bob Keistler, Wilmington District Civil Works Programs and Project Management branch chief, it’s been years since a commercial vessel passed through between Fayetteville and Wilmington.
Every year, the Army Corps spends approximately $600,000 maintaining the dams.
To the best of Keistler’s knowledge, no other dams have been similarly discontinued from Army Corps’ authority.
When asked who might be responsible for the dams if the Army Corps backs out, Keistler said it could be transferred to a non-federal entity, with multiple outcomes to be evaluated.
“Until the study is completed, we are not able to forecast future project outcomes,” he wrote in an email.
Because raw water near Wilmington is subject to saltwater intrusion, the region’s drinking water source is 23 miles upstream, at Lock and Dam No. 1. The actual source of water is Jordan Lake, 107 miles upstream from the intake “straw” at the dam.
CFPUA is reliant on Lock and Dam No. 1’s full functionality to meet its current distributed potable water capacity of 15 million gallons a day. In a statement submitted to the Army Corps, CFPUA said the dam must be maintained to ensure sufficient water levels and to protect the region’s raw water from downstream salinity.
The utility also presented concerns about how a transfer to a “non-federal entity” leaves options open for a “wide variety of potential buyers or ownership agreements.”
“Our present concern with the advertised project scope is the uncertainty around which organization would take the assets on, should they be deauthorized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” CFPUA’s comment states.
This uncertainty could disrupt large capital projects, like the $46 million GenX solution CFPUA is pursuing right now.
“Uncertainty over ownership of such a critical piece of infrastructure would significantly
impair our ability to effectively plan for major projects involving our raw water supply system,” the comment states. “Should ownership move to an organization that is not accountable to downstream communities, it could put the drinking water supply for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority at risk.”
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