SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — To adequately service 550,000 customers in Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties, water authority executive Tim Holloman says an additional $54-million water main line is needed. A recent leak along the current water line prompted a scare the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) wants to avoid in the future.
The authority is asking five counties to pass resolutions of support to request state funding. Bladen and Pender counties approved the resolution this week.
If LCFWASA were to fund the installation itself, it would have to nearly double customers’ rates (which, at this time, is not planned). It would also prevent the authority from maintaining adequate funding for future maintenance and repairs.
Holloman said the authority has already begun discussions about financing options with senators and representatives from the five counties it covers: Bladen, Pender, Brunswick, New Hanover and Columbus.
In November 2021, a leak was detected on the only water line running to Pender County on the southwest side of the Cape Fear River. A section of the pipe became disjointed, causing about 30 million gallons of water per day to escape. The blowout required 200 feet of major repairs.
“Luckily, it was in the wintertime and only 7 million gallons per day needed to go through,” Holloman told Pender County commissioners at a meeting Monday. “Had it happened during summertime, it could have been a very different event.”
In 2019, LCFWASA’s system broke its record of daily water output over Memorial Day weekend, peaking at 100.8%. While the pandemic bought some time for the authority to reevaluate its capacity, demand still called for additional pipeline. Thereafter, LCFWASA instituted new emergency protocols to inform customers when 85% capacity has been reached.
If a leak occurred during peak months, LCFWASA’s wholesale customers, including N.C. State Ports Authority, 10 regional medical facilities, Sunny Point Military Terminal, Leland’s rail terminal and the port terminal in Boiling Springs Lake — along with numerous essential businesses and facilities — would be at risk of having to use extreme conservation measures.
The additional 10-mile line, to run parallel to the current line, would provide backup support for future similar incidents.
Major leak and repairs
It took about a day to locate the source of the leak. Four months ago, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s water gauge signaled pressure was lower than usual. A helicopter and drone surveying the 10-mile area finally spotted the 6-foot-high water gushing from the ground. This led to roughly 30 million gallons of untreated water per day spilling out on the ground.
Holloman explained the leak went on for about six weeks before a temporary 36-inch bypass made of polyethylene, a high-density plastic, was installed. This allowed crews to isolate and access the water line for repairs while still servicing Pender and New Hanover counties and Wilmington customers. In the meantime, residents were able to receive limited, minimum water service — 7 million gallons per day versus its capacity of 15 to 18 million per day. CFPUA also brought a few wells online to provide additional water.
Crews completed the roughly $2.3-million repairs in early February.
The original line was installed in the 1990s and has faced a number of issues over the years, including debris in the trenches, the disappearance of its rock base (which Holloman said was possibly never installed) and a pipe rupture caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“During the [most recent] repair, we discovered some sedimentation in the line,” Holloman explained. “There is no repair structure in place to clean it out. There are also several sections where we’re concerned about joint integrity.”
Installing a new 10-mile, 48-inch parallel line will advance capacity and provide a backup supply source, while also allowing for water service to continue as crews make intensive repairs along the entirety of the current piping.
“There is no way to take down the existing line for repairs because it’s the sole line, so this is crucial,” Holloman told commissioners. “Two lines would help to avoid future issues.”
To complete this project, piping will need to be installed under the Cape Fear River with one of two methods: directional boring that pushes the pipe under the river or open cut, which requires the river to be dammed up and diverted around the area that needs to be exposed.
The latter is a more painstaking process, Holloman explained, and is coupled with some environmental concerns.
According to LCFWASA’s meeting minutes, the directional drilling under the river is an expensive endeavor, estimated at roughly $1,000 per foot.
Once complete, the parallel line will begin at the 3-million-gallon ground reservoir near the Brunswick County Northwest Water Plant and traverse north and east through Brunswick, Pender and New Hanover counties to U.S. 421. It then runs south along the highway and terminates at CFPUA’s meter vault next to the Stepan facility.
Holloman said he anticipates construction starting within the next two years, following design, engineering, permitting and bidding. It will take 24 to 36 months to construct.
14-mile parallel pipeline under construction
Also in the works is a new $37-million pipeline that runs from Kings Bluff Water Pump Station, where raw water is pulled from the Cape Fear River just above Lock and Dam No. 1, to Brunswick County Northwest Water Treatment Plant.
The 48-million-gallons per-day Kings Bluff station conveys the water to Brunswick’s treatment plant where it’s held for storage and pumped to CFPUA and Pender County utilities.
Funded jointly by CFPUA and Brunswick and Pender counties, the 14-mile, 54-inch conduit will complement the current 48-inch line, installed in the 1980s.
Based on the funding percentages, each entity will be allocated certain water usage capacity to accommodate future growth over the next 25 years, Holloman explained.
Construction, managed by CFPUA and Garney Construction, started in 2019 and is anticipated to be operational by early spring. Following completion, Kings Bluff will have an expanded capacity of roughly 96 million gallons per day — or double its current volume.
The price tag was a bit lower for this project, even though it measures 4 feet longer. When LCFWASA went to order its piping, there was already some available that another unknown, out-of-state entity no longer needed, so it was essentially surplus.
“People were amazed we had a good deal on that,” he said. “Things have gone up considerably since then.”
Once finalized, the water line will allow for 160 million gallons to flow per day and will require a fourth pump to be installed due to the increased volume.
A dedication ceremony for the new 54-inch line will be held May 20 at Kings Bluff.
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