Before the unanimous vote to adopt an updated water shortage response plan into the county’s code, commissioners argued the merits of a blanket surcharge applied to all customers when Stage 3 restrictions are declared.
BURGAW — In response to a recent water shortage that affected one-fifth of Pender County’s population, commissioners voted to amend its outdated Water Shortage Response Plan (WSRP). The unanimous vote came after a lengthy discussion about the enforcement of a surcharge to all water customers when Stage 3 mandatory restrictions are in place.
During a Board of County Commissioners meeting on Monday, Pender County Utilities (PCU) Director Kenneth Keel said the outdated plan differed from the WSRP that was approved by the NCDEQ Division of Water Resources in 2018 and then adopted by commissioners in January 2019.
“So the legality of enforcing it is somewhat questionable because of that,” Keel told commissioners.
Keel said the updated plan outlines the triggers to declare certain levels of water restrictions in a more detailed manner, giving the county flexibility to declare levels of restrictions when certain drought conditions exist or when water capacity hits specific thresholds.
Keel declared Stage 3 mandatory restrictions during the recent shortage that affected 11,800 people served by the PCU in the Hampstead and Scott’s Hill areas. At the time, he identified three trigger conditions present: Keel himself identifying a shortage, two consecutive days when water capacity exceeded 90 percent (the system reached 97 percent capacity over Memorial Day weekend), and less than 1.5 million gallons of water storage in the distribution system.
Those triggers are three of five outlined in the updated WSRP’s Stage 3 restrictions, even though at the time the WSRP had not yet been adopted into the county’s code of ordinances.
A ‘punitive aspect’ of the surcharge
After the county initially declared a drought surcharge of 1.5 times the normal rate, it rescinded the penalty after facing backlash from its customers.
“And that was the problem we had during the recent emergency situation: you were enacting an emergency management plan that says, ‘Y’all need to cut your household usage by 20 percent,'” Commissioner Jackie Newton said. “If they do that, and abide by that, they should not be penalized by incurring increased water usage rates.”
She said the surcharge has a “punitive aspect for something beyond [customers’] control.” As an alternative, she suggested applying the increased rate only to customers who exceed mandatory limits.
“It would be nearly impossible to handle administratively,” Keel said in response.
“Why?” Newton asked. “We have water meters don’t we? We read water meters don’t we? Why can’t we handle that?”
Keel said such measurements would require more time, personnel, and technology to measure who is and who isn’t in compliance. Commissioner David Piepmeyer agreed, saying the surcharge incentivizes decreased usage in a water system that is limited by its ability to identify customers exceeding the restricted limits.
“In an ideal situation it would be nice to charge only people using too much water,” Piepmeyer said. “But we don’t have that capability. In order to encourage people across the board — some may choose to use 150% of what they typically use, but they’re going to have to pay for it.”
Chairman George Brown agreed with Newton.
“I just feel like we’re group-spanking everybody because you’ve got a handful of people who do not comply,” Brown said.
An investment in technology
Commissioner Newton said her biggest point was that if the county purported to act as a utility, giving water to citizens at a certain price, then “technology ought to be so much that we should be able to identify leaks and waste and overages.”
“We can spend the money up front if that’s what we want to do, but it’s painful,” Piepmeyer responded, adding that such an investment would require raised rates for all PCU customers.
Commissioner David Williams said the large area of PCU’s coverage required a gradual approach to replacing old components of the water system with new technology; for now, he said an investment in the resources required to accurately measure overages was impractical.
“We can’t afford to bite this off all at one time,” Williams said.
But Newton warned that, in the future, the county should have the technology to match its growing water needs.
“I think the day’s going to come that if we don’t have this technology, we’ll wish we had,” Newton said. “Because water’s going to be our most precious commodity.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com