SURF CITY — A council candidate has brought to public attention a sewer system that has reached capacity and recent findings that most of the town’s 2,220-acre Juniper Swamp property cannot be used for its intended purpose as wastewater spray fields.
David Gilbride, a retired oil industry executive and former contributor to the Pender-Topsail Post & Voice, said at a recent candidate forum that the town’s sewer system had hit maximum capacity, outpaced by the town’s growing population. If elected, he said he would support a building moratorium until the town finds a solution for its wastewater collection problem.
“I sure don’t want to see sewage effluent running down Route 50 towards the beach,” Gilbride told the audience.
According to permit documents and correspondence between the town and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), as well as records of past town council meetings, the town is facing crucial constraints on its wastewater discharge capacity and has acknowledged the “critical timing” of expanding that capacity in order to also expand its overall sewage treatment capabilities.
In May of 2019, the town received a “Notice of Deficiency” for exceeding discharge limits in nine of its irrigation spray fields. One field had exceeded the state limit by more than 20 percent and received an “exceedance deficiency” while the remaining eight fields were found to be in a lesser form of non-compliance because they were under the 20-percent threshold.
History of Juniper Swamp
Spray fields are used as an alternative to directly releasing treated wastewater into a waterway; the fields are ‘irrigated’ with treated wastewater, which allows plants, insects, and other ‘biota’ to extract nitrogen and phosphorous from the water. It also manages the rate of discharge by allowing some of the wastewater to evaporate, or work slowly through the soil.
Surf City purchased the swampland — located on the west side of N.C. Highway 50 several miles north of Holly Ridge in Onslow County — from Adirondack Timber Company sometime between 2005 and 2007, according to past council meeting minutes. In January 2019, the town received an option to purchase the 2,278 acres of land for $4 million, with an opportunity for the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) to purchase the wetlands portion of the land and possibly reduce the price by $2.2 million.
In an April 2005 council meeting it was announced that the owners had agreed to terms of a land sale, but minutes of the meeting did not clarify any of its details. Onlslow County land records show the assessed value of the land today is just under $1.1 million.
Reports from a hydrogeologist and soil scientist helped “determine the feasibility of this site as a spray irrigation site” and showed that 1,000 acres would not be classified as wetlands and could provide “adequate land to provide 2-2.3 million gallons per day” in wastewater collection.
The reports were submitted to the town by the Wilmington-based engineering consultancy firm Cavanaugh & Associates in January 2005.
But according to Gilbride, a study recently conducted by Highfill Infrastructure Engineering determined that only 158 acres of the 2,200-acre property could actually be used for spray fields. He said the report was discussed at a town council workshop on August 16, revealing that 120 acres were currently in use and an additional 38 acres were found suitable for wastewater collection.
When asked how the town could have been assured the property was suitable for spray fields at the time of purchase, according to Gilbride, the Highfill engineering consultant said such assurances were not possible based on the data they had collected.
“In the end it became clear that the town must move ‘post haste,’ as the engineer stated, to buy additional land that could be used for a spray field because our capacity to dispose of treated wastewater now pretty much matches the amount of wastewater entering the system,” Gilbride said.
The town clerk said details of the Highfill presentation were not available because it was not part of the official minutes.
Can dispose of only half the plant’s capacity
According to those minutes of the recent August meeting, after the presentation councilmembers agreed to “to look at trading access to game lands for use of other property owned by the state of North Carolina” and to investigate two other parcels of land for purchase.
A request to discharge in nearby creeks and streams, made in April 2018, was denied by the state, according to correspondence between the town and DEQ. In a letter to the DEQ, Lance Bergman, the town manager at the time, said that a draft soil report for Juniper Swamp indicated that its current average capacity of just under 290,000 gallons per day (gpd) could only be increased by roughly 60,000 gpd before reaching the land’s maximum capacity.
Combined with the town’s other spray irrigation site, Sarge Martin — 88 acres first permitted in 1993, located near the town’s wastewater treatment plant in Holly Ridge — Bergman said the maximum potential for treated effluent disposal is about 740,000 gpd, “or roughly half the existing capacity of the [wastewater treatment plant],” which has a capacity of 1.5 million gpd.
Bergman wrote that the Sarge Martin site had been developed to its capacity of just over 467,000 gpd “and has no more capacity available.”
“A draft soil science report recently received for the Juniper Swamp site indicates that its current maximum yearly average capacity of just under 289,000 gpd can only be increased by about another 66,000 gpd to maximize the capacity available at this site,” Bergman wrote.
In the letter Bergman requested the DEQ to look into the possibility of discharging a portion of its treated effluent into either Shelter Swamp Creek or Holly Shelter Creek. Two months later the request was denied because the DEQ could not determine impacts to either the Juniper Swamp creek or to an estuary connecting the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean.
Instead, the DEQ suggested the town explore other options, including purchasing additional land for wastewater collection, connection to a regional system, water recycling, water conservation measures, and the reduction of inflow into its current spray fields.
Plans to expand sewage treatment on hold
According to DEQ records, Surf City received its first permit for the construction and operation of Juniper Swamp in 2011. Its 120 acres of spray irrigation fields were built out sometime between August 2012 and July 2014.
In 2014, the town was capable of receiving 1.2 million gpd of treated water; however, that number dropped to 767,800 gpd by 2017 after the decommissioning of a 3-acre infiltration basin. Additionally, the Sarge Martin site was only permitted to operate at a 467,000 gpd capacity, nearly half the capacity it was permitted in 2014.
The town has had plans to double the capacity of its water treatment plant to 3 million gpd since at least 2009, when Cavanaugh — the firm that first studied Juniper Swamp’s feasibility in 2005 — began designing plans of the plant’s expansion, according to past council meeting minutes.
As noted in minutes of a town council meeting held in May of this year, town manager Ashley Loftis urged council to proceed with upgrades to the plant, the expansion of which is “contingent on how much spray area we have on Highway 50 at Juniper Swamp.”
Public Works employee Steve Smith said “the critical timing is disposal and this needs to happen fast,” according to the meeting’s minutes. Commissioner Buddy Fowler agreed.
“[W]e are in great need of waste disposal; we need to look at this water and sewer as the lifeline as we grow — those that can be funded this year need to move forward and the others added as a priority next year,” Fowler said, according to the minutes.
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring the Juniper Swamp land acquisition and the constraints facing Surf City’s sewer system. Questions have been sent to officials of Surf City, DEQ, and the firms involved in the land surveys.]
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815.