LELAND, N.C. — More restrictive protocols are now in place to help ease water demand in future water shortage scenarios after an untimely combination of factors caused the greater Wilmington area’s raw water supplier to exceed its permitted capacity last year.
Pushed beyond its permitted limits in May 2019, the system that supplies raw water to more than 350,000 people was pumping out more water than it was designed to deliver in order to meet peak demands over the record-breaking month. As a result, residents in the Cape Fear region were asked to (and for some systems, required to) reduce non-critical water use for a 94-day stretch.
Ahead of the historically higher demand summer season this year, Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA), the region’s lesser-known raw water supplier has adopted a new emergency management plan to respond to water shortage events. The new protocols don’t mean residential customers will be hearing from LCFWASA directly. However, it does give its public customers, including Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, Brunswick Public Utilities, and Pender County Utilities, a firm direction on when to issue restrictions and implement conservation measures.
“Nobody knows who we are, unfortunately,” Jerry Pierce, the authority’s interim director said at its regular meeting Monday. “They need to get that word directly from the people they get the bill from.”
View how water suppliers including LCFWASA, Brunswick Public Utilities, and Pender Public Utilities exceeded their system capacity last summer. In addition to receiving LCFWASA water, CFPUA has its own raw water sources independent of LCFWASA and did not come close to exceeding the system’s demand. Click to enlarge:
Learning lessons from last year, the new protocols help give local suppliers mandates for when to incorporate water restrictions of their customers.
Before, no such mandated or official guidance was on the books. Each supplier previously acted in accordance with their own respective water shortage response plans. After last year, these public utilities indicated they wanted more guidance and oversight from the authority to help oversee the systemwide balancing act to supply enough raw water to meet demands.
“We’re sort of all interdependent on this situation,” Pierce said Tuesday. “I think that was a lesson that they learned last year.”
If the authority can make it through this summer smoothly, it could be the last season in a 10-year period the protocols may be necessary, as a parallel pipeline project is already underway to increase delivery capacity by an estimated 44%. Pierce said the $42 million joint CPFUA and Brunswick 54-inch pipeline project is on schedule to wrap up before July 1, 2021.
“This summer is going to be — if there is an issue where we are going to reach those issues — it will be this summer versus next summer. I think this summer will be worst-case scenario in the short term for us,” Pierce said Tuesday, adding that all water demand is weather dependent.
“Not only does it matter how much it rains, but it matters when it rains,” he said. Mondays, historically, are the highest use days for most public water systems, Pierce said. This means if it rains Sunday night or Monday morning, demand on the highest-demand day of the week is relaxed when users don’t turn on the sprinkler.
Could restrictions happen again? Perhaps, but last year’s factors were unique. First, a regional drought consumed the southeast, with the Wilmington region receiving just 14% of the rainfall that it normally gets in May 2019. Dry conditions triggered homeowners, golf courses, subdivisions, and more to irrigate their lawns more than usual to keep grass from getting scorched.
Some suppliers that purchase water from LCFWASA, like Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority (CFPUA) and Pender County Utilities, imposed mandatory restrictions on customers, requiring thousands to avoid watering their lawns (some customers, like D.R. Horton in Hampstead, ignored these restrictions). Brunswick County’s restrictions remained voluntary, even as demands pushed the county’s capacity to an average of 92% in June 2019.
And to exacerbate already stressed demands, a six-month-long project to replace old pumps at CFPUA’s own station at Kings Bluff wrapped up May 23, 2019 — just days before Memorial Day Weekend. Before work was complete on the pumps, CFPUA was drawing more than usual from LCFWASA’s King Bluff intake station located adjacent to its own offline station.
Also of note, tourists trickled into the region’s coast, filling empty beach houses. All the while, public infrastructure systems struggle to keep up with what seems like unstoppable regional growth. Plans are in place to upgrade and expand these systems, with some construction already underway, but demand outpaced the region’s preparations.
For about nine months out of the year, demand won’t meet peak capacity in these systems. However, if systems aren’t designed to meet peak summer demands, water pressure issues can ensue, increasing the risk of infrastructure damage.
What are the new rules?
Though LCFWASA is permitted to deliver 45 millions of gallons a day (mgd) from its Kings Bluff Pump Station, its new emergency response plan uses a more conservative ceiling: 43 mgd.
“We wanted to be safe in our emergency planning by using a slightly lower number,” Pierce explained.
At operating stage two in the new emergency plan approved Monday, mandatory restrictions kick in. Stage two is triggered when three consecutive days of demand exceeds 90% of system capacity. These restrictions include alternating irrigation times and days, banning pool filling, restricting hydrant flushing for non-emergency events, require large commercial customers like golf courses to reduce use by 10%.
Stage three, the most serious non-demand dependent risk stage, begins when demand exceeds 90% capacity after five consecutive days.
“It becomes much, much more restrictive, recognizing the criticality of where we’re at,” Tony Boahn, vice president of McKim & Creed told the authority Monday of stage three.
All previous rules from stage two apply, plus an outright ban of all irrigation systems, hose sprinklers or cleaning, all residential pressure washing, and filling fountains, pools, or ornamental ponds beyond the amount necessary to maintain aquatic life.
Golf courses and large commercial systems must reduce water use by 50% from the previous month, and commercial vehicle washes that don’t reclaim water must reduce use by 20% from the previous month.
Beyond stage three, stage four applies to major contamination, low river level, or pipe and mechanical failures.
Apply these rules to last year’s squeeze, far stricter restrictions would have been triggered. Using the 43 mgd figure, demand exceeded 90% of system capacity for a seven-day streak between May 5 and 11; a nine-day streak between May 14 and 22; and an eight-day streak between May 24 and 31. The streaks continued with a seven-day consecutive stint above 90% capacity between June 27 and July 3, with the last high-demand stretch of the summer lasting four days between July 27 and 30 before demand tapered off, according to data provided by LCFWASA.
In all, demand averaged 96.7% of system capacity in May 2019, peaking at 105% on May 29, using the conservative 43 mgd capacity, or 100.8% of permitted capacity.
Before the high-demand season begins, all LCFWASA utilities are set to join up for a meeting. This has not taken place before, and serves as yet another example of how utility leaders are taking steps to better manage systemwide demand.
View the Emergency Management Plan below:
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