CARRBORO - OWASA’s plan to make it easier to tap Jordan Lake water during emergencies concerns some local officials.
Most Triangle communities rely on Jordan Lake to meet their daily needs, but the Orange Water and Sewer Authority has spent roughly 30 years making sure it has enough drinking water in its own back yard: at the Cane Creek Reservoir, University Lake and the still-unfinished Quarry Reservoir. Between them, they could provide Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC with water for the next 50 years.
But the quarry won’t be available until 2035, making the system vulnerable during a drought like the ones in 2002 and 2008, OWASA planning Director Ed Holland said in an interview.
OWASA has a backup plan as a member of the Jordan Lake Partnership.
The state Environmental Management Commission allocates 15 billion gallons of useable water in Jordan Lake to 13 Triangle water providers, or about 100 million gallons a day. OWASA has a 5 percent share of that water, but cannot use it, because its state allocation is Level 2 – for future use. A Level 1 allocation is necessary to use the water now.
As it stands now, a severe drought or other emergency would force OWASA to ask Durham for help. If Durham doesn’t have the water to sell, OWASA could ask Cary to sell some of the water it pumps out of Jordan Lake. Since the state tracks how much water each partner uses, any water OWASA uses counts against Cary’s or Durham’s Level I allocation. In an ongoing situation, that could cause a problem for Cary or Durham in trying to meet their needs.
Cary and Durham officials say they don’t mind helping but want OWASA to have a Level 1 allocation next time. Cary has to think about its own customer needs first, town water resources manager Leila Goodwin said.
“We’re happy to help, but we prefer it come out of OWASA’s part,” she said.Level 1 Vote
OWASA’s Board of Directors voted 5-3 in December to seek a Level 1 allocation. If the state approves, the conversion would include a one-time fee of $225,000. OWASA now pays $12,000 a year toward Jordan Lake operating costs and interest on its capital costs – a total of roughly $300,000 since 1988. The annual fee would fall to $4,000 to $5,000 with the conversion.
OWASA officials said they are not interested in using Jordan Lake water to meet everyday needs. The Level I allocation would be used only for emergencies – if a major pipe breaks, for example – or during severe droughts. The trigger for tapping the lake’s water would be a Stage 1 water restriction – the first of three drought conservation steps.
Those who support the move, including the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, UNC and some local leaders, see it as a way to ensure adequate supplies in desperate times.
Other local leaders said there are too many unanswered questions. The community has spent time and money to build reservoirs and conserve water so it wouldn’t need the lake, they said. The plan OWASA has floated also puts few restraints on when and under what circumstances it can tap its water allocation.
“(This change) will put us in a situation where the pressure for folks to implement conservation efficiency will be taken off of us, because we’ll be accessing Jordan Lake early on, and the effect of using less water as a population will be reduced,” Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade said.Next Step
OWASA will have to convince the state’s Emergency Management Commission that the allocation is important to its long-range water supply and drought management plan. State rules do not address emergency access to Jordan Lake, and a utility that does not use its Level I allocation within five years risks losing it. Several local leaders urged OWASA to seek a rule change instead.
N.C. Division of Water Resources Deputy Director Tom Fransen said he doesn’t see a problem now with approving OWASA’s request, but the EMC will have to make tough choices to balance the needs of 13 growing utility areas in the Jordan Lake Partnership. OWASA and its partners need to decide how they want to use Jordan Lake, so the state do the right thing, he said.
Another issue is how soon OWASA might use the water. A Stage 1 trigger, which only affects landscape irrigation, taps Jordan Lake too soon, some local leaders say. Tougher Stage 2 restrictions would be a more appropriate time to use the allocation, they say.
OWASA board member Will Raymond agrees and says OWASA also should have resolved issues first with proposed changes to a local water agreement. The changes, which would need to be approved by the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the university, would give OWASA unilateral authority to decide when to tap Jordan Lake.
“It was very important that all partners – OWASA and the community as a whole – bought into this change,” Raymond said.
OWASA officials said those issues are not part of the Level I conversion discussion, because Jordan Lake will be used only for emergencies as the local agreement states.