NC Water Utilities Must Deal With Aging Infrastructure

Nov 19, 2018

OWASA's Jones Ferry Road water treatment plant, in Carrboro, N.C.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

It has been a tough couple of years for the Orange County water utility that serves 80,000-plus customers in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area.

A water main break on November 5 raises important questions about aging infrastructure statewide, especially since the Orange Water and Sewer Authority had a water main break last February.

OWASA Executive Director Ed Kerwin said the failure of the 77-year-old pipe outside OWASA's Jones Ferry Road water treatment plant earlier this month was a major event.

Over an eight-hour period while crews worked to stop the leak, the system lost 9.5 million gallons of water.

"And to put that in context, in a normal 24 hour day in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, our community uses about 7 million gallons of water," said Kerwin in an interview at his office.

Ed Kerwin, OWASA's executive director, pointing to the site of a water main break on Nov. 5.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

OWASA's biggest customer is UNC Chapel Hill and the university's hospital complex.

The recent water main break forced the transfer of UNC patients to Duke, in Durham, and other facilities.

Water was piped in from other municipal systems and OWASA customers remained under a boil water advisory for more than 24 hours.

Kerwin said OWASA has engaged an independent consultant to answer two key questions: Why did the pipe break? And why did it take 8 hours to stop loss of water?

Meanwhile, Kerwin said OWASA's board has budgeted $33 million over the next five years to accelerate pipe upgrades, from 1.7 miles a year to 3.2.

"About 50 cents of every dollar of OWASA revenue from customers is reinvested in infrastructure," Kerwin said.

OWASA has resources for capital improvement that smaller municipal authorities do not.

"A lot of infrastructure was put in 80, 90, 100 years ago, so it's getting to the end of its design life," said Kim Colson, director of the Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Water Infrastructure.

Colson said urban areas along North Carolina's I-85 arc, and in the tourist-friendly cities of Wilmington and Asheville, have the resources to support robust water utilities.

But municipalities in rural areas with stagnant or declining populations need state grants to develop management plans and prevent major system failures, he added.

OWASA's Ed Kerwin said it is important to inform customers why capital improvement--and occasional rate increases--are so vital.

Pipe work often means traffic headaches, too.

In the next couple of years, OWASA will replace pipe along Manning Drive in Chapel Hill--a major road leading to UNC Hospitals.