LELAND — A coalition of local governments and utilities are prepared to accept responsibility for the Cape Fear River’s three locks and dams through a nonbinding letter of intent, competing with a similar bid from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Related: Crucial Cape Fear drinking water infrastructure is at risk. Government agencies aren’t coordinating
Lock and Dam No. 1 — located upriver near Riegelwood — is critical to Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender counties because it created the pool that allows water utilities to put their ‘straws’ in the water. Without the dam, Southeastern North Carolina would be facing a water shortage if no new infrastructure was built.
As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nears the end of its disposition study process, interested stakeholders are working out which entity will take on the expensive but vital dams. The dams haven’t been used for their federally authorized purpose of commercial navigation for 25 years, according to the Corps’ recent disposition study, and federal funding for maintaining them is quickly drying up.
The DEQ views all identified locks and dams interests — water supply, water quality, fish passage, aquatic habitat, and recreation — equally. Local governments see water supply as a non-negotiable, number one priority, hence, the competing state and local bids.
In deciding whether to back a coalition of utilities or to support a state takeover of the dams, local officials have had to consider whether the state, which has deeper pockets for big projects than local utilities, will prioritize local interests enough to satisfy their concerns.
An ‘incidental’ pool
Though not by design, this infrastructure holds back a pool of water just behind its concrete spillway. Water supply intake stations operated by Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) located directly upstream rely on this pool to provide drinking water to more than 350,000 people downstream. Another pool of water created by Lock and Dam No. 3 supplies drinking water to more than 250,000 people served by the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, which also supplies water to the Fort Bragg military base.
If the lock and dam infrastructure fails at either location, it could spur a regional water supply crisis. As of November 2019, all three dams are rated Dam Safety Action Classification 5, the lowest urgency designation by the Corps that considers the risk of failure, according to the Corps’ disposition study finalized last month. However, the condition of the locks and dams has continued to deteriorate over the past decade, according to the study.
After a century of looking after them, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t be making a recommendation as to which entity should take over. The power ultimately falls with Congress, which can decide which entity will take on the locks and dams. Congress will consider both state and local letters of intent and could:
- Do nothing, meaning the Corps still own the dams but with dwindling funds to keep them up
- Agree with the Corps and approve legislation to give them to another party, to be decided by the General Services Administration (a painstaking process)
- Agree with the Corps and approve legislation, transferring ownership to an eligible entity
This de-authorization and ownership transfer process could take two to five years, according to the DEQ.
Siding with FPWC
Monday, Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) showed political support for the Fayetteville Public Works Commission (FPWC), which plans submit a letter of intent to take on ownership of the lock and dam system; FPWC would then shoulder operation and maintenance responsibilities of Lock and Dam No. 2 and 3 and immediately transfer Lock and Dam No. 1 to LCFWASA (only one entity can initially take ownership of all three locks and dams).
FPWC firmly supports taking on the infrastructure instead of the state. Notably, its director, Mick Noland, worked for then-Department of Natural Resources (the precursor to the current DEQ), serving as the Fayetteville Regional Supervisor before joining the Commission.
LCFWASA passed a resolution of support for FPWC’s nonbinding letter of intent, signifying a discordance with the state’s position, while still tip-toeing close enough to collaboration so as not to alienate the state entirely. To compromise on this concern, LCFWASA included an addendum to the proposed resolution: “the Chairman and Board of Directors for the authority will work with whatever entity acquires the locks and dams to prioritize and protect the public water supply.” Or, as Brunswick County Chairman Frank Williams translated, “we’ll support [FPWC’s] letter of intent but we’ll work with whoever gets it.”
Members from the five-county utility board debated whether a decision would appear too neutral, should they fail to support either letter of intent, or too harsh, should they completely support FPWC. Some questioned whether siding with FPWC would harm or embolden the authority’s negotiating power with the state. Jerry Pierce, LCFWASA interim director, told the board he believed it could serve to strengthen the utility’s leverage, with the authority offering financial assistance to the state in exchange for prioritizing water supply.
Though its resources have been cut by one-third over the past decade, the state is in the most viable financial and administrative position to take on ownership of the three locks and dams. Even the local governments seeking a competing bid recognize this as the most likely outcome. So what’s the holdup? For some, it boils down to a matter of trust.
East of I-95
After a Corps presentation in December, the state declined to discuss the topic further with local groups that reached out, including FPWC and CFPUA. Finally, on Jan. 31, all stakeholders got together for a conference call. In the call, local governments learned the state’s position that all interests are equal and that it planned to submit a letter of intent to the Corps to take over the locks and dams.
Less than an hour after the call, the state shared a press release stating its public position that it would submit a letter of intent by Feb. 28 — a move Jerry Pierce, interim director of LCFWASA said was not discussed during the call. The content of the release wasn’t a surprise, Pierce said, but he thought there was one important omission: the 2008 legislation that would leave the infrastructure up to the state requires properly refurbished fish passages at each — just Lock and Dam No. 1 has a working fish passage.
“Right now, I don’t have any confidence in the state based on what they’ve said, that they’re going to agree to protect the water supply. When they say that all five are equal, and she clearly said that in the conference call, she clearly said that, that’s what concerns me,” Pierce said at the meeting Monday, referencing comments shared by DEQ’s coastal infrastructure project manager, Dr. Coley Corderio.
Pierce clarified he doesn’t necessarily see the difference as a lack of trust, rather, it’s representing conflicting interests that have lead to the difference with the state.
Asked to explain the DEQ’s reasoning behind treating all goals equally, spokesperson Sarah Young said it ensures all stakeholder interests are represented. Young did not provide the state’s response to the local government officials’ statements of distrust.
“As we have said in the past, the state recognizes the importance of maintaining the locks and dams for flood control and resiliency, and to protect water quality, water supply, fish passage, aquatic habitat and recreational opportunities in the Cape Fear River. State ownership ensures that all stakeholder interests are represented moving forward,” Young wrote in an email.
But for local leaders, many don’t trust that their interest — ensuring adequate water supply — will be advocated for by state officials.
Echoing sentiments shared by all Brunswick County Commissioners on the topic at a Jan. 21 meeting, Chairman Williams said his hesitancy was based on experience. “I lived in Raleigh for 20 years. And most of the folks in my former hometown where I lived don’t know anything about what happens east of Interstate I-95,” Williams said, to which a former Brunswick County Chairman added, “Amen.”
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo asked, “Why do you trust PWC?”
“In general, I’m going to trust local government to respond to local concerns more than I trust Raleigh or Washington eight days a week and twice on Sunday,” Williams said.
Al Leonard, Tabor City Town Manager and LCFWASA board member, emphasized the importance of financially preparing for a mechanical failure of the century-old locks and dams outside of storm events when the Federal Emergency Agency won’t bail local entities out. “I don’t trust the state, they’ve burnt me many times, I didn’t appreciate it. But they do have deep pockets,” Leonard said.
Larry Sneeden, CFPUA board member, encouraged board members to stay in the middle on the issue. “It’s not an us against them,” he said. Referencing environmental groups he works with, Sneeden said he sees all stakeholders as having reasonable interests.
“They’re certainly not saying, ‘we support fish over water,'” he said about environmental groups. “They’re just saying, ‘we support fish.'”
In addition to passing the resolution supporting LCFWASA’s letter of intent, Pierce asked all LCFWASA representatives to encourage their constituencies to comment on the Corps’ disposition study. He suggested comments simply state the importance of water supply so they can be entered into the record and considered by Congress later on.
New Hanover County, Brunswick County, Pender County, CFPUA, and the City of Wilmington may consider passing similar resolutions this month.
The final disposition study can be viewed online. Public comments can be emailed to Justin Bashaw at SAWCFLDDispositionStudy@usace.army.mil or mailed to:
Justin Bashaw, U.S. Army Engineer District, Wilmington, CESAW-ECP-PE
69 Darlington Avenue
Wilmington, NC 28403
The public comment period ends Feb. 20.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at email@example.com