PENDER COUNTY — Residents receiving water from Pender County pay a water rate that is at least 60% higher than other regional suppliers — a figure that reflects a relatively new system carrying water to fewer residents across a large county.
Regional supplier Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) pumps water from the Cape Fear River and supplies five surrounding counties, including New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender. In turn, Brunswick supplies H2GO, the town of Leland, and eight additional municipalities across Brunswick County.
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But while LCFWASA’s customers each pay the same wholesale rate of $0.27 per 1000 gallons, the rate Pender County Utilities (PCU) passes along to its household customers — $6.50 per 1000 gallons — is 60% to 128% higher than the retail rate charged by other regional providers. (This accounts for four of the county’s five water districts; Maple Hill charges a lower rate of $6 per 1000 gallons due to a lower amount of debt, according to the county.)
Water provided to fewer customers
According to Pender County Chairman George Brown, these higher rates are based on operating a system that delivers water to far fewer customers per mile of pipeline — between 60% to 315% fewer customers per mile of pipeline, according to figures provided by the county. PCU has an average of 24 customers per mile of water pipeline, compared to 59 (CFPUA), 63 (H2GO), and 99 (Leland).
“We also have the second-lowest number of customers served,” Brown said. “Our large land area served, as approved by our citizens in referendums held in each water district to expand the water system, makes our costs to operate and maintain the system higher than others in our area.”
According to PCU’s director Kenny Keel, the county serves 9,230 customers in five districts. He said residents of the Columbia-Union district, which takes up a large portion of the county’s northwest region, had voted against expanding the water system into their area. Although it is still noted on county maps as a water district in the county, he said it is not an active district.
Before the county built its $28-million-plant, located on Highway 421 near the New Hanover County line, Keel said PCU water lines within the Columbia-Union district were running along Highway 117 from Wallace — where the county received water before the plant was constructed — to Penderlea School.
Supply issues in the east
More than 85% of these customers lie within the two districts on the county’s coastal region, requiring water to be transported from the treatment plant in the west across the county and through a 12-inch pipe along Highway 210 to two tanks in the Hampstead area. Over a dry summer, this infrastructure constraint affected PCU’s water supply to the heavily populated coastal region.
According to estimates provided by Keel, the three water districts in the county’s interior region include between 3 to 12 customers per square mile. This number jumps to between 57 to 59 customers per square mile in the districts along the coast.
The county is currently evaluating whether to build a new water plant in the Hampstead area or a larger 16- to 20-inch water pipe to run parallel to the current 12-inch pipe supplying the coastal area. An engineering consultant is expected to publish a report by December 31, according to Brown.
“Our interim solution is to drill a couple of water supply wells to supplement our supply until a long-term solution is constructed,” Brown said. “We have received preliminary approval of several sites in Hampstead and anticipate having wells in operation by May 1, 2020.”
In early September, Surf City officials discussed plans to take over water supply in areas within city limits that are currently supplied by the county, citing PCU’s supply issues over the summer. Brown said there have been no formal discussions between Pender County commissioners and Surf City council members, and no meetings are scheduled.
“Pender County has primacy over areas within our water districts where we have water service available,” Brown said.
But he also said PCU considers deferral requests on a case-by-case basis and has granted some deferrals over the last year — none of which have been denied due to water constraints.
“PCU has not withheld any deferral which would prevent development due to water availability,” Brown said.
Brown also said negotiations are ongoing to establish an interconnection agreement with CFPUA — New Hanover County’s main provider — and a draft agreement is under review and should be finalized by the end of the year.
Paying off the debt
Keel said the relatively high rate charged by the county is also a result of 95% of the PCU system being less than 20 years old.
“[S]o we still have a lot of debt for initial construction of many water lines and our other facilities,” Keel said.
The Maple Hill district can charge a lower rate than others because it is a completely separate system from the rest of PCU’s service area and incurs lower annual debt. According to Keel, it is part of the county’s original system, and the county only pays $16,300 in annual debt for the district — 8% of the district’s operations budget.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815