Thursday, July 18, 2024

Pender could double water capacity, ease regional water issues with two additional plant operators

Two operators run the county’s only water treatment plant, earning a combined $84,000 from the county; adding two more positions would double the county’s water capacity. Nearly 40 days into a water shortage in the east, one commissioner said he was unaware of such a solution; another said she regrets the mismanagement of the water department.

One of two water tanks supplying the Hampstead area that ran dry over Memorial Day Weekend, when the county's water capacity reached 97 percent. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
One of two water tanks supplying the Hampstead area that ran dry over Memorial Day Weekend, when the county’s water capacity reached 97 percent. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY —  Nearly 40 days into a water shortage that has restricted usage for nearly 12,000 Pender County Utility (PCU) customers in the Hampstead area, PCU Director Kenny Keel and Chairman George Brown both addressed expansion needs for the county’s taxed water distribution system. 

PCU’s sole water treatment plant, near U.S. 421 just north of the New Hanover County line, receives its raw water supply from the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA). Although the plant was designed and contracted to produce 6 million gallons a day (mgd), Keel said significant facility upgrades are needed to reach this level. 

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

But he said only two additional operators would be required to expand to a 24-hour schedule and double the plant’s current capacity of 2 mgd. This would not only help offset peak demand by keeping tanks full at night when demand falls, he said, but would also “stretch out operations” to reduce stress to a regional raw water supply that pulled a record 1.283 billion gallons of water during the month of May.

“We thought we had another year before we needed to add more personnel and go to a 24-hour operation, but these last couple of months have taxed us beyond what we thought,” Keel said in a phone call last week.

According to Keel, the county is now contemplating hiring temporary operators to move to a 24-hour operation schedule.

A drought caused a water shortage emergency declaration on Sunday, May 26, when Stage 3 mandatory water restrictions were imposed on PCU customers in the Scott’s Hill and Hampstead areas. Although a boil advisory was lifted the following Wednesday, Keel said the ongoing restrictions will remain in place at least until July 8, at which time the county’s water needs will be reassessed.

‘Water on the wrong side of the 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 Water Plant was designed and contracted to treat 6 mgd of water. Although significant upgrades are needed to reach this level of production, PCU Director Kenny Keel said two additional operators are needed to double production to 4 mgd. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)

Keel’s comments follow a June 3 Board of County Commissioners meeting when commissioners approved a $169,000 study by a Raleigh-based engineering firm, CDM Smith, to assess distribution improvements and additional water sources in order to provide sufficient water capacity to eastern Pender County. 

During the meeting, CDM engineer Reed Barton said the scope of the project had shifted from countywide capacity needs to a growing scarcity in the east, “where to my understanding the critical need to transmitting daily water is apparent.” Barton said the current 12-inch pipe that supplies the region was the county’s central constraining factor.

“It’s just like a hose in your backyard: the longer you stretch it out, you’ll eventually get to the point where you look at the end and go, ‘There’s hardly any water coming out of that thing,’” Barton told commissioners. “It’s very similar, but it’s a 20-mile pipeline … Our issue is not a quantity of water, it’s a quantity of water on the wrong side of the county.”

He said a larger pipe to run parallel to the current pipe would be one of two central infrastructure projects his team will assess; the other, a new water treatment plant in the Hampstead area to supply the densely populated eastern corridor. In the meantime, he said short-term options will be explored to satisfy demand until such infrastructure is in place, like tapping into interconnections with neighboring utility providers such as Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA).

Barton’s colleague, Michael Pollard, estimated the project would be finalized by December, at which time they will present various short-term and long-term water system improvement options to the board. 

An interconnection with Surf City’s water system was turned on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. Although it supplies only 100,000 gallons a day to a limited area near Surf City, Keel said any eastern source helps significantly because “we don’t have to push all the way across the county.” A second interconnection, with the town of Wallace, is typically used for emergencies, according to Keel.

Double the operators, double the capacity

Keel said he has not asked the Board of County Commissioners to approve the addition of two plant operators at this time. Although it may be requested within the year, he said two months of recruiting and training would be necessary after the positions were authorized.

Combined salaries for the plant’s two current operators equals $84,457, according to Pender County Finance Director Meg Blue. A similar amount for two more positions would be a fraction of the investment required to install more filters, improve pumping capabilities, and upgrade other components of the water system that would allow the plant’s production to reach 6 mgd.

Keel said informal, public discussions have taken place among commissioners in the last month about the added positions and the benefits of running on a 24-hour schedule. 

“[I]t won’t be anything they haven’t heard about us trying to change our operations or stretch out our operations,” Keel said.

In response, Chairman George Brown said on Monday he was unaware that doubling the plant’s capacity to 4 mgd only required two additional operators — that was a discussion Keel had not brought forward to commissioners, according to Brown.

“That was news to me … I was not aware that’s all we would have to do, to make that happen, would be that simple — to go from a 2- to 4-[mgd plant],” Brown said. “I thought there was always more to it than that.” 

However, during a tense exchange between Keel and commissioners during the June 3 board meeting — a week into the Stage 3 mandatory water restrictions — Keel informed commissioners that personnel limitations were holding back the plant’s capacity. When Commissioner Jackie Newton addressed “the adverse impact we have by the hours we pump and fill our tanks,” in reference to the plant’s 10- to 12-hour schedule adding stress to the regional system, she asked Keel if he had worked out “staffing issues” at PCU. 

“Not as of yet,” Keel replied. “Right now with the amount of water we’re needing for the system, about the only way out would be if we added a couple operators at the plant. We can only run so much a day because we only have so much staff that can do that.”

Brown said that if doubling the plant’s capacity truly entails little more than adding two plant operators, he supports the investment. But he needs to see the numbers and hear it from Keel himself, which he expects at this Monday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting.

“That conversation needs to come quick,” Brown said. “Our ears are open.”

Effect on regional water supply

During the June 3 meeting, Newton continued to press Keel on the personnel issues that she said are “affecting the consumers downstream” from the PCU plant. She said the limited daytime schedule to fill up the tanks — and fill them at fast rates due to the N.C. 210 pipeline’s small size — was “affecting the flow of water that can be taken downstream on the Cape Fear in an adverse manner.” 

“We haven’t given up on the possibilities, it’s just that there’s a lot of difficulties,” Keel said.

“I’m not asking you to give up on it, I’m asking you to work out a solution,” Newton replied. “Because I’m hearing it from Brunswick, I’m hearing it from [CFPUA], and I’m tired of hearing it and it needs to be resolved.”

In an email on Tuesday, she was more direct. 

“I regret that this department is mismanaged as it seems that being ‘short handed’ is the excuse that is being used in publications,” Newton wrote when asked if commissioners supported funding two additional plant operators to double capacity. “Unacceptable.”

Pender County Commissioner, right, speaks to Chairman George Brown, far left, at a Board of County Commissioners meeting in April. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Commissioner Jackie Newton, right, speaks to Chairman George Brown, far left, at a Board of County Commissioners meeting in April. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Pender County receives a small fraction of raw water from LCFWASA’s Kings Bluff station on the Cape Fear River compared to its neighbors to the south, CFPUA and H2GO, which serve residents of New Hanover and Brunswick Counties, respectively. Although both utilities account for the lion’s share of LCFWASA’s 45-mgd delivery capacity, PCU’s May numbers helped push the Kings Bluff system over the top.

Last May LCFWASA delivered more than 2.6 mgd on May 18 and May 29 —  both record amounts — to Pender County. Keel estimates 20 percent of these figures to be wastewater lost during the treatment process, but he said the plant exceeded its 2-mgd production capacity twice during the week after Memorial Day.

Although the 1-to-2 mgd supply typically required by PCU has a minor effect on LCFWASA’s overall delivery capacity, PCU’s spiking demands in May, combined with the half-day operations of its water treatment plant, added further stress to the regional system.

“When they’re trying to run at a very high rate of speed trying to get those tanks filled at only 10 hours [per day], that interferes with normal operations,” LCFWASA Director Don Betz said.  

Keel said that, to his knowledge, the water plant’s half-day operation has not been an issue until May due to high demands during the drought. This was further exacerbated by maintenance to CFPUA’s raw water pump station adjacent to King’s Bluff, which according to Keel, only went back into service in mid-May.

Where it would help more than anything is the other partners that are getting water from [LCFWASA],” Keel said. “Instead of us compressing our need for raw water into 12-13 hour period, we’d be able to stretch it out over the entire 24 [hours].”

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