Thursday, June 20, 2024

Drought, water shortage puts focus on maxed-out infrastructure in eastern Pender County

The Pender County Water Plant is set to triple its capacity, if approved for NC DEQ funding, and may be ready by early 2021. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)
The Pender County Utility water treatment plant can currently produce 2 million gallons of water per day (mgd). Last Memorial Day weekend, the average daily flow hit 1.943 mgd — more than 97 percent of its capacity. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)

Over Memorial Day weekend, Pender County Utilities (PCU) reached 97 percent capacity for its water system as drought conditions and record usage spotlighted a need to expand water infrastructure in the state’s fourth-fastest growing county.

BURGAW — An ongoing water shortage emergency has affected one-fifth of Pender County’s total population for five days and counting.

Now, county leaders face the need to expand a water distribution system that reached 97-percent capacity and ran dry in the county’s densely populated eastern corridor over Memorial Day weekend. According to Pender County Utilities (PCU) Director Kenny Keel, mandatory restrictions for the Hampstead area are still in place and will likely remain so until early next week.

“Water usage unlike ever before”

On Thursday, county leaders addressed concerns of an increasingly burdened water supply to the fast-growing Hampstead area, discussing options that range from adding interconnections with regional water suppliers to building a new water treatment plant in the east to expand PCU’s water capacity by 50 percent.

Pender County Board of Commissioners Chairman George Brown attributed the shortage to a combination of factors at play over the three-day weekend: drought conditions returning for the first time in several years, a record volume of water largely used to irrigate drying lawns, and new developments along the coast that have caused a countywide population spike in the past decade. According to 2018 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Pender County’s population has increased by 18.6 percent since 2010 — the fourth-fastest growth rate among all North Carolina counties over that period.

“This month is a record for water usage unlike ever before which was due to drought-like conditions and the heaviest burden on our system to date,” Brown said.

Brown responded to the concerns of one resident, posted on a Hampstead-area community Facebook page, who believed the water emergency was a result of inadequate sizing of the water supply system and the government’s failure to address the issue in a proactive manner.

“When the county installed the system years ago before any of us were in government, the county was only allowed to install a 12-inch line,” Brown said. “That was more than adequate and would handle growth needs for that time. Criticism comes easily sometimes. There are large costs associated with even the simplest projects and we will get criticism for spending money on those projects which will help to avoid future issues.”

He said fellow commissioners have planned for a parallel line to run alongside the 12-inch main that brings water from Rocky Point to two tanks in the Hampstead area, an option he now sees “becoming a more front burner item.”

A steering committee of Hampstead residents recommended localized police enforcement, planning and zoning, street maintenance, and waste and recycling collection. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A tank near Topsail High School in Hampstead. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

“The idea that we have not been proactive or have failed to prepare is not true,” Brown added.

He pointed to ongoing discussions with nearby utility providers to add connections for supplemental sources as well as a proposal to move higher volume by building more pumping stations along the main line — an option that commissioners had “already planned for but had not yet implemented.”

Ultimately, he said commissioners “stepped up to the plate in planning for future growth” by building a water treatment plant designed to expand in incremental phases — an economically sound decision, he said, that will save time and money when they are ready to expand.

Empty tanks

According to Keel, the time to expand is now.

“I wouldn’t call [the water supply system] inadequate but it definitely needs to be upgraded, or we need a larger line in place to meet future demands,” Keel said. “The peak we saw over the weekend is a larger peak than we’ve ever seen in our system.”

Keel said the average daily water flow for the three-day weekend reached 1.943 million gallons per day (mgd), a huge spike from historical values over the same three-day weekend:

  • 2015: 1.07 mgd
  • 2016: 1.053 mgd
  • 2017: .983 mgd
  • 2018: 1.068 mgd
  • 2019: 1.943 mgd

“While we have seen flows increasing somewhat, we did not expect that demands would be high enough to exceed our available supply,” Keel said. “As you can see from the figures, the water system used nearly double the amount of water seen over the last four years.”

According to Keel, there are approximately 11,800 people served by the PCU in the Hampstead and Scott’s Hill areas that were affected by the recent water shortage, representing nearly one-fifth of the 20,900 residents served by county water.

Pender County has a water shortage emergency plan, reviewed by the N.C. Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ), that allows Keel to implement a Stage 3 Mandatory Restrictions emergency if one of five triggers is present. Keel said three of those triggers were present when he called the emergency last Sunday evening: Keel himself identifying a shortage, two consecutive days that water capacity exceeds 90 percent, and less than 1.5 million gallons of water storage in the distribution system.

Keel said the 12-inch line runs from Rocky Point to Hampstead along N.C. 210, and about halfway between there is a ground storage tank and a booster pump station to re-pressurize the water in order to move it down to two tanks that supply the Hampstead area. Those two tanks — one in Hampstead and one near Surf City — were empty, according to Keel.

“Some of that is growth, but a lot of that is attributable to dry weather and irrigating, and a lot of usage occurred because it was so hot and so dry,” Keel said. “And that completely taxed out the water line to where it was putting out everything it could, and we couldn’t put any more out.”

Although PCU was tapping into Surf City’s water line over the weekend, he said it is the only other outside source they have established to supplement the system.

“We are looking at a permanent interconnection with the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority to take a little bit of the stress off, to buy us some time until we can get a plant built or a new parallel line and booster pump station put in along [N.C.] 210,” Keel said.

A new water treatment plant in the east

According to Keel, the county is looking into the construction of a new 1-mgd water treatment plant somewhere near the coast, which would add 50 percent capacity to the current plant located in the west on the Cape Fear River.

He said the county is currently in negotiations with “another entity” to build the new plant within a year to 18 months; if it is built only by the county, it would add at least another year to the project timeframe.

This highlights a tradeoff county leaders and taxpayers now face: a large investment to expand to 3-mgd capacity in the short-term, or smaller investments spread over the coming years to expand a system that, according to Chairman Brown, was designed to scale out gradually. But either option must outpace development that is occurring at a rapid pace along the coast.

There is also the issue of a $3.2 million expansion of the current facility, from 2 mgd to 6 mgd, discussed in October but failed to receive the necessary funding. This came after an interbasin transfer (IBT) certificate was approved last July that would allow the county to move water from the Cape Fear River to basins and sub-basins in the more populated eastern region of the county.

“In March, we found out that we were not awarded a grant or loan for the projects,” Keel said. “The loans are awarded based on a point system, and we didn’t have enough points compared to others that also applied for [State Revolving Funds] loans. We are being considered for the current round of funding, which should be announced in September.”

“There were two issues at play at the same time and one needed the other,” Brown said of the possible expansion of the current plant. “I am sure this will be discussed in our upcoming meeting.”

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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