Saturday, September 30, 2023

Crucial Cape Fear drinking water infrastructure is at risk. Government agencies aren’t coordinating

The Cape Fear River as seen just a few hundred feet downstream from Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood. The dam’s removal or the lock’s failure would create a significant water supply crisis for the region. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

LELAND — A 105-year-old dam essential to the Cape Fear region’s raw water supply source is up for grabs.

The dam’s longtime owner and caretaker, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, doesn’t want it anymore. It isn’t fulfilling its federally-authorized purpose and a reduction in funding for its upkeep is imminent.

Related: CFPUA concerned about Army Corps seeking to back out of managing regional dams

Directly upstream, Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood creates a pool of water on the Cape Fear River (the Corps described this use of national infrastructure as “incidental” and a “not authorized” project purpose). Two water intake stations at Kings Bluff rely on the pool of water created by the dam to source raw water to the majority of the Cape Fear region.

If the nearest dam is removed or the century-old locks fail after the federal government backs out, a major water supply crisis could ensue. Meanwhile, government agencies are lacking coordination and clarity with each other as local officials figure out what to do.

Disposition study

Last year, the Corps initiated a disposition study seeking to discontinue its role in monitoring and maintaining three regional dams: Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood, Lock and Dam No. 2 in Elizabethtown, and the William O. Huske Lock and Dam No. 3 in Fayetteville.

All three were constructed for commercial navigation purposes in the early 20th century. It’s been 25 years since the locks and dams were used for their authorized purpose, with only occasional sight-seeing tours that require opening the locks for recreational use.

The Corps spend approximately $450,000 annually to keep up the dams, according to an update on the disposition study shared by the Corps in December 2019; this funding is set to substantially decline in the future (in December 2018, a Corps representative said it averaged around $600,000 to keep all three dams in a “minimally acceptable condition”, including operations, labor, maintenance, dredging, and electrical fees).

Both Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) and Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) operate pump stations directly upstream from Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood, with a total intake capacity of more than 100 million gallons a day combined.

It’s ‘ludicrous’

Jerry Pierce, interim director of LCFWASA, told board members Monday to prepare to make a decision on the future of the dam by March. If the regional water utility does indicate it would take over Lock and Dam No. 1, it would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in new and unexpected expenses.

City of Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo was baffled by the timing and bungled cooperation among government agencies, given the dam’s importance as the region’s raw water supply source.

“We talked about this over 10 years ago,” Saffo said. “To make this decision by February — which I think is an important decision — not only to ecology but to flooding issues that we’re dealing with in southeastern North Carolina, and a lot of other things, I mean that’s just not right.

“This is a serious issue for us here,” Saffo said at the LCFWASA board meeting. “To make a decision in February on something this important, to me is ludicrous.”

Phil Norris, former Brunswick County Chairman and LCFWASA board member, expressed distrust with the state and uncertainty over whether it would look out for local interests if it took over the dams. “They got more political oomph than we do,” he said.

From the Corp’s view, the three options moving forward for all three dams include:

  • Remove the locks and dams
  • Leave the locks and dams alone with no maintenance
  • Transfer the locks and dams to a third party
    • Eligible third parties include North Carolina (Department of Transportation or Department of Environmental Quality) or a newly-formed utility

The consensus among LCFWASA members was clear: the only viable option is transferring ownership and maintenance responsibilities to a third party.

This third party could be a utility formed for the sole purpose of transferring the dams and could be later dissolved; the utility could be a partnership between LCFWASA, CFPUA, and Fayetteville Public Works Commission (PWC). It’s worth noting that the mutual interests aren’t completely overlapping: Fayetteville PWC has no interest in Lock and Dam No. 1 and LCFWASA has no interest in Lock and Dams No. 2 and 3, and vice versa.

Or, the state could take over operations at all three dams.

In 2008, the legislature passed S.L 186, outlining how it would acquire all three dams. However, the acceptance protocol comes with a caveat: all three must be “properly refurbished” and have functioning fish passages; currently, only Lock and Dam No. 1 has such a passage installed. Pierce said he is working to figure out what “properly refurbished” really means from the state’s legal counsel and remains unclear about several key items.

Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood, North Carolina is located just downstream from the Cape Fear Region's raw water source on the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy USACE)
Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood, North Carolina is located just downstream from the Cape Fear Region’s raw water source on the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy USACE)

No answers

The state’s interests in taking over the dams, according to the LCFWASA presentation Monday, include 1) water supply 2) water quality 3) fish passage 4) aquatic habitat 5) recreation.

Pierce is concerned that these focus areas contradict one another (e.g. fish passage would improve through removing the dams while removing the dams would be catastrophic for regional water supply needs).

While local officials have questions, apparently, it appears the state isn’t taking meetings to answer them. “The state is acting very strange about this,” Pierce said.

Mid-December, the Corps hosted a meeting to provide an update on the status of the disposition study, set to be finalized by the end of the month. Local officials who attended the meeting agreed there remains plenty more to discuss, but state and federal officials say there is no more information available at this time.

In early January, CFPUA reached out to the assistant director of the Division of Water Resources to request a conference call, including the utility, LCFWASA, and Fayetteville Public Works Commission (PWC). The assistant director declined, stating there are no new updates.

A state representative also declined to meet with the director of the Fayetteville PWC, Mick Noland, who reached out separately for a meeting, according to Pierce.

“[The state] refused to meet with them,” Pierce said. “Both of us think something is — we’re not sure what’s going on. Why they’re unwilling to at least talk to us about, what are your plans if you were to take this over? That’s what I wanted to know.” he said.

“I’m not sure what’s going on with the state,” Pierce said. “That makes me nervous.”

Asked to explain why the state declined these meetings, Sarah Young, a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) spokesperson, emailed the same response that was given to CFPUA, nearly verbatim: “Once further decisions are made regarding an updated status, the intent is to communicate that information to all stakeholders involved in the process.”

New study

LCFWASA board members approved a $17,500 budget amendment to approve the authority’s one-third share of an independent study being conducted by Arcadis for Fayetteville PWC. The study will break down specific operation and maintenance costs, according to Pierce, and is necessary for LCFWASA to make an informed decision regarding whether it is feasible to independently accept ownership and operation of Lock and Dam No. 1. The study is due Jan. 29.

Pierce said he will be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the Corps to obtain financial information deemed “classified” relating to the dam. But according to Corps spokesperson, Dave Connolly, the NDA is required to obtain “condition and risk classification of the federal dams” and is unrelated to information contained in the forthcoming final disposition study.

“This information is sensitive to the national security of the United States because it is related to the structural integrity of national infrastructure,” Connolly provided in a statement Monday.

View a copy of the Corps’ presentation on its disposition study presented to stakeholders in December:

Cape Fear Locks and Dams Disposition Study – Update for Stakeholders by Johanna Ferebee Still on Scribd

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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