BRUNSWICK COUNTY — For six consecutive days late last month, Brunswick County’s water system was consistently pushed to serve demands above 90 percent of its capacity.
Demand peaked the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, just 4.3% shy of hitting the system’s full production capacity.
Before then, demand jumped by 15% between Thursday and Friday heading into the three-day weekend.
The recent demand boosts broke the county’s previous water demand record at least nine times, according to data provided by Brunswick County Utilities.
Triggered by ongoing regional drought conditions, utility leaders in the area attribute peaking water demands with widespread irrigation. That, partnered with tourist season, means the region’s infrastructure is being pushed to its maximum capacity.
Demand over Memorial Day Weekend was, on average, 56% higher this year, compared to the same eight-day period in 2018. On average, that meant 10 million gallons per day (MGD) more demand — a massive increase compared to the county’s 30 MGD total system production capacity.
In 2017, Brunswick County’s population nearly doubled during tourist season, according to CDM Smith, the county’s water consultant. Next year, a projected yearlong population of 96,374 is estimated to increase by 2.5 times, reaching 240,935 in the summer.
Plans to increase production capacity at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant by 50% are still in the design phase. Construction to give the plant a $179.4 million overhaul — including expansion and treatment upgrades –is expected to reach completion by December 2022.
Why only voluntary?
Unlike Pender and New Hanover County, Brunswick County Utilities has not issued mandatory water restrictions.
Brunswick County’s Water Shortage Response Plan includes three tiers of water alerts; since the Stage 1 Alert was announced May 28, it has not been lifted. On June 6, Brunswick County Utilities announced the alert would “remain in force.”
The county has exceeded criteria to reach a Stage 2 Alert, according to the county’s Water Shortage Response Plan, renewed in January. Including mandatory restrictions, a Stage 2 Alert can be announced after two consecutive days when demand exceeds 90% of production capacity.
However, the county has discretion in issuing each alert. John Nichols, Brunswick County Public Utilties director, may declare each alert pending consultation with his staff and the county’s administration.
“We did not want to enter directly into a Stage 2 Water Conservation Alert with enforceable restrictions without giving the Stage 1 Water Alert with voluntary measures a chance to reduce water usage,” Nichols wrote in an email Thursday. “It appears that this has had an impact on water usage along with the change in weather and the rainfall.”
Indeed, after issuing the Stage 1 Alert, and after modest but much-needed rainfall trickled in, demand tapered off. After Memorial Day, when one might assume visitors had packed their bags and headed inland, demand was still breaking records.
On Friday, May 31 — four days after Memorial Day — demand in the county still exceeded its previous record, set on July 10, 2015, but tapered off shortly after. When asked why demand persisted after the holiday, Nichols said several factors are at play.
“From Memorial Day through Labor Day there are a significant number of visitors to Brunswick County. Even under normal conditions there is not a tremendous drop in flow after Memorial Day. The unusually high demand is a result of the record-breaking heat and drought conditions combined with the additional visitors in the area. The current temperatures are more typical of the July and August time-frames rather than May and June.”
About the system
Brunswick County’s Stage 1 Conservation Alert impacts all of the 10 smaller utilities it serves. Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO, The Town of Oak Island, and the Town of Navassa are Brunswick County Utilities’ biggest water customers.
Between 1,047 miles of distribution lines, Brunswick County’s water system is comprised of a complex network of pump stations, water towers, and two treatment plants. Nichols said the system relies on booster pump stations to pump water across the large county.
Also, water towers help offset peak demands by providing storage capacity.
Brunswick County’s largest plant, Northwest Water Treatment Plant, has a production capacity of 24 MGD. NWWTP treats raw water sourced from the Cape Fear River, purchased from the Lower Cape Fear Water Sewer Authority. The 211 Water Treatment Plant sources raw water from the Castle Hayne Aquifer, with a production capacity of 6 MGD.
With both plants combined, Brunswick County Utilities is capable of producing 30MGD of treated water.
Demand in Brunswick County historically peaks around the Fourth of July, according to Nichols. Last year, demand peaked on July 4, at about 84% of production capacity.
Author’s note: Figures are represented in percentages for simplicity. Data courtesy of Brunswick County Utilities.
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