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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Surf City’s search for land to dispose treated sewage water highlights infrastructure challenges for growing town

Only a fraction of the 2,200 acres of Juniper Swamp can be used by Surf City for the disposal of treated wastewater. (Image courtesy Google Earth)
Only a fraction of the 2,200 acres of Juniper Swamp can be used by Surf City for the disposal of treated wastewater. (Image courtesy Google Earth)

SURF CITY — A key challenge facing the coastal town of Surf City as it continues to approve subdivisions for a growing population is the expansion of its infrastructure to keep pace with that growth. 

There have been some successes, for sure.

 In the last year, the town has seen the completion of a new high-rise bridge that replaced a 1950s-era swing bridge — one that, although iconic and popular among many tourists and residents, caused an increasing amount of congestion for traffic entering and leaving Topsail Island. 

And the water system seems to be ahead of the curve. In September the mayor and council discussed attempting to take over water supply from the county in outlying areas of the town after a dry summer exposed the county’s limited supply to the densely populated Hampstead area. 

READ PART I: Surf city can only use fraction of Juniper Swamp wastewater fields as sewer system reaches capacity

Surf City’s sewer system, however, is nearing a point where its wastewater treatment plant is running out of land to discharge effluent. The town is currently searching for additional land to purchase after a recent land survey of its Juniper Swamp property — 2,200 acres located 15 miles from the plant — revealed only a small fraction of the land could actually be used for wastewater collection. 

Sewage capacity levels saw a large increase last year

Mayor Doug Medlin said the expansion of the sewer system is one of the town’s top concerns, and that changes to state regulations played a part in the current need to find additional land for wastewater collection.

“One of the most critical, primary infrastructures is water and sewer, and the most challenging of these is sewer,” Mayor Doug Medlin said. “Our current board has an intense focus on this area currently and has recently expanded our sewer services. Due to new regulations, we are in the process of locating additional discharge areas, but our water system is in great shape.” 

According to effluent flow data from the state’s Division of Water Resources (DWR), the town’s sewer system was between 65 to 73 percent capacity in 2018. By July 2019, that number had reached 83 percent capacity. 

State law requires North Carolina utility facilities to submit engineering evaluations, including plans for expanding its discharge system, before reaching 80 percent. Prior to reaching 90 percent capacity, expansion permits must be obtained and a construction schedule submitted.

Although the system experienced at least a 10 percent increase in its capacity as it approaches the 90-percent threshold, DWR spokesperson Sarah Young said the system itself has not experienced repeated sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) or other violations that typically occur with a system at its capacity. She also said a Notice of Deficiency the town received in May for exceeding discharge limits on nine of its irrigation spray fields were for the Sarge Martin site, adjacent to the treatment plant, which appeared to have no visual compliance issues.

Surf City can only use fraction of Juniper Swamp wastewater fields as sewer system reaches capacity

Engineer addresses 2005-era land survey

The new land survey was conducted by Highfill Infrastructure Engineering, results of which were discussed at an August town council workshop meeting. Vance Brooks, a senior project manager for the company, declined to comment on any specifics of the report but did confirm that it showed only a small fraction of the Juniper Swamp property could be used for wastewater discharge.

Because the issue was brought to light by a former local journalist who is currently running for a seat on town council, David Gilbride, Brooks said company policy is to avoid entering “the local political arena by making comments on projects we are working on.” According to Gilbride, the report showed that only 158 acres of the 2,200-acre property could actually be used for discharge. 

Although the town would not provide a copy of the report presented to council, Brooks noted the report itself is a working document and subject to change as more information and data are obtained. 

Multiple phone calls and emails sent to Town Manager Ashley Loftis asking for more details about the report and information about a land survey presented to council in 2005 — one that recommended the town purchase the property because approximately 1,000 acres could be used for wastewater disposal — were not returned. 

That initial report was conducted by engineering consultancy firm Cavanaugh & Associates. Gus Simmons, now a director of bioenergy for the company, was one of two consultants who made the 2005 presentation to council. 

Although he was not familiar with the results of the new land survey, he said the discrepancy between the 2005 report and the 2019 report — the first finding that 1,000 acres were usable, the second finding that 158 acres were usable — was likely a result of the impacts to the land by several hurricanes over that time period, changing its characteristics, alongside changes to state regulations. 

He said the hurricanes can change how creek channels flood while falling trees can impede the land’s natural drainage patterns. Additionally, things like beavers’ dams can also change the hydrology of a property over time. 

“I’m not surprised that things could’ve changed over time,” Simmons said. “But I do recall that at the time we completed those studies, there was good work performed by the soils and environmental folks who were evaluating the property, and the hydrogeologist who was making the recommendation. Everybody was operating on the best available information at the time.”

He said the land survey work was also reviewed by multiple state agencies. 

Simmons also pointed to changes in state regulations and best practices concerning effluent discharge methods. In addition to irrigation, he said those working on the survey identified other effluent management strategies for the land that were considered to be viable at the time, including a process called wetland augmentation. 

According to Simmons, around the same time of the land survey the state had developed a set of regulations for the process, one that he said applied effluent to the land at a higher rate than an irrigation system “to essentially augment areas that, left to their own devices over time, may become wetlands.” 

He said one of the test sites for the method was on nearby land, and some involved in the survey suggested it would be a good long-term option for the site.

“Well as it turns out, I don’t think that approach has been used much at all, if any at all,” Simmons said. 

In May, 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.” Commissioner Buddy Fowler said funding for expanded waste disposal was urgent, and called water and sewer “the lifeline as we grow.” 

Mark Darrough can be reached at or (970) 413-3815

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