PENDER COUNTY — The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) has scrapped a long-planned interconnection agreement with Pender County due to capacity constraints with its Richardson Plant, which would have supplied the interconnection.
Pender County was informed of the decision as commissioners met for a two-day board retreat last week, when commissioners discussed moving forward on building a groundwater treatment plant in the Hampstead area to relieve a water supply bottleneck in the fast-growing coastal corridor along Highway 17.
The utility — the region’s largest — said its decision came as a result of last summer’s drought that caused demand to spike and the plant to reach maximum capacity, as well as an ongoing filter membrane-replacement project.
No interconnection for another five years
Pender County Utilities (PCU) Director Kenny Keel said the decision came as a surprise to county leaders, especially since PCU had already spent roughly $85,000 on its initial study and design work — work that was 75 percent completed when the news came in, according to Keel.
CFPUA, which supplies more than 70,000 customers within New Hanover County, sent a letter to Pender County Manager Chad McEwen last Thursday explaining why it had decided to turn away from the interconnection proposal, which had been discussed since at least the spring of 2018 when an engineering company named Stantec performed a water system development study for Pender County.
“In short, the Authority currently does not have excess water system capacity to reliably supplement Pender’s supply without risking impacts on its customers in New Hanover County,” CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner wrote to McEwen.
He said a new round of discussions had been rekindled in 2018 and steps were taken to design the interconnection along Highway 17. The project was planned to include a 12-inch pipe from the Pender side connecting to a 16-inch pipe in New Hanover, and a metered valve that would allow CFPUA to sell water to Pender in times of emergency.
Highfill Infrastructure Engineering submitted a feasibility analysis for the permanent interconnection in August 2018, estimating it would take 15 months to design, permit, and construct the interconnection at a total cost of $400,000.
“Pender was paying for everything,” Keel said. “It’s a critical emergency connection, I think for both Pender and CFPUA, and they seemed to agree it’s important to do but because they’re having their own capacity issues right now in that area, they don’t even want to make the connection.”
He said the decision would effectively shelve any sort of interconnection for another five years.
CFPUA spokesman Vaughn Hagerty said the county had “reached out to us after some gap of time” — but only after the drought and peaking water demands the utility company’s Richardson plant experienced last summer.
“And so we looked at what we had going on, at that time, and we decided to start on plans to expand the Richardson water treatment plant,” Hagerty said.
The plant is mainly supplied by the Peedee Aquifer but also has emergency wells tapping into the Castle Hayne Aquifer; the CFPUA turned to those emergency wells during last summer’s drought and high demand surge, which caused a higher iron content in the water, according to Hagerty.
This year, the CFPUA began replacing the filter membranes at the Richardson plant, reducing its capacity while the project moves forward. But once complete, it will only allow it to return to its prior capacity of 6 million gallons a day (mgd). Meanwhile, Hagerty said the utility is looking at expanding the plant to 9 mgd due to last summer’s drought, but that project is just now in its planning phase and has not yet received approval from the board.
He estimated the expansion to be completed in roughly five years, assuming it is approved in the first place, at which time the CFPUA would again consider an interconnection with Pender County.
Plans to build new water plant in the Hampstead area
Meanwhile, following the commissioner’s retreat, the county is expecting to move forward on a $109-million project to build a reverse osmosis groundwater treatment plant in the Hampstead area, which could expand the area’s current water supply by more than 375 percent.
The area is currently supplied by water lines traversing the county from its treatment plant near the southwestern border that receives raw surface water from the Cape Fear River, which operates at a current capacity of 2 mgd.
He said the Hampstead area uses roughly 800,000 to 900,000 gallons a day of that capacity, but during the summer the area consistently requires a million gallons a day. The new plant would be designed to produce 3 mgd with plans to expand to a 5-mgd capacity within 20 years, according to Keel.
“We need to be able to produce that water locally rather than move it across the whole county,” Keel said. “And the numbers came out that it was the most affordable alternative to build a plant rather than try to put a bunch more pipes to move the water across the county.”
The county commissioned Raleigh engineering firm CDM Smith to conduct a $169,000 study last July. Once completed, it recommended an estimated $109-million project ($122 million using inflated numbers over a 20-year span).
The recommended option also includes the construction of parallel pipes along Highway 17 in Scotts Hill and Hampstead and pipeline improvements near the Rocky Point tank, according to Keel, in order to get enough water in and out of both the current plant and the new groundwater plant.
The project, if approved in coming months, would also include building a new elevated tank within the next few years in Scotts Hill, according to Keel. He said the county is only in the preliminary phase of looking at potential pieces of property, but would need roughly 200 acres to build out the plant and an adjacent wellfield.
Although the CDM Smith study had pointed to a portion of land owned by Jamestown Properties, which is trying to build a sand mine on the land under a large amount of local opposition, Keel said those plans were only preliminary.
“They just found a big piece of land that had enough property for us — we haven’t even started negotiating with anyone on land yet. It’s just a preliminary possibility of a site that could handle what we need,” Keel said.
The initial site plan map provided by CDM Smith shows the wellfield on a portion of the Jamestown property that the developer had set aside as a conservation easement when submitting its sand mine proposal in January. The area is home to red-cockaded woodpeckers, listed federally as an endangered species.
The April 7 Board of Commissioners meeting will include various items related to potential funding and initial site evaluations, according to Keel. He predicted the county is still several months away from entering into an engineering or construction contract to build the plant.
Send comments and tips to Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815