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You are here: home > opinion > in my opinion

Chatham's water plans all wet

By Ronald D. Singleton, PE
Posted Thursday, June 1, 2006

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Pittsboro, NC - I am very concerned about the path you all have apparently headed down to obtain additional water supply for Chatham County. A decision was made some 15 years ago by your predecessors to utilize Lake B. Everett Jordan for the long term water needs of the county. That decision was sound then and it is still sound. Lake Jordan is the most reliable and cheapest water source that the county can ever have.

Jordan Lake is the most reliable and cheapest water source for Chatham County.

I have the feeling that you all are making a knee jerk reaction to numbers and comments that have been thrown around without a lot of discussion or evaluation. I have seen numbers thrown out without any backup that indicates a need for an additional 7.22 MGD in ten years to supply the 10,000 new homes approved over the last several years. Your staff’s own numbers based on current usage indicates a per capita daily usage of 51 gallons. The 2000 census figures for Chatham County show a person per household number of 2.47. Using those figures you would need an additional 1.26 MGD to serve that new population. Now I know you would need additional capacity for peaking but even your own engineers said that you would only need 5.1 MGD total capacity at the end of 10 years and they were basing that on the State mandated figure of 400 GPD per connection. I think before you commit to a path that is going to cost $32 million dollars over the next few years, that you should take a long hard look at the raw numbers and what the implications are.

Currently the County is in the news for it’s inability to adequately operate the existing water plant. That is a function of the current management team in Chatham County and not a problem with the plant itself. It doesn’t make sense to me to spend $32 million dollars to go to a different, less reliable water source because of the shortcomings of your staff. I know from direct experience that the Jordan Water Plant can be operated efficiently and produce water of outstanding quality. There is no practical reason why the existing plant can’t be expanded to serve the foreseeable future needs of the County. The $30 to $40 million dollar figure for a new plant on the west side of the Lake is predicated on the assumption that the existing plant can’t be expanded enough to serve the future needs and I don’t agree with that hypothesis. There is also the question of taking $5 million from the general fund balance to fund utility enterprise fund projects that will benefit only a small percentage of the County’s citizens.

I get the impression that part of this decision to go to Harnett County is your reluctance to deal with Cary and Apex. You have a contract that says you will build your own raw water pump station at the Cary/Apex intake site by June of next year. I understand that you have a “gentleman’s agreement” that Cary will not enforce the provisions of this contract. As you all know the political climate of Chatham County will change drastically come December. This contract has not been revised so from a legal standpoint you are in jeopardy of having that contract enforced at any time after next June which would cut you back to 1.0 MGD production at the Jordan WTP. You don’t have to like Cary and Apex or agree with their policies but you need to be professional enough to deal with them when it is in your best interest. Again the current animosity between the County and Cary/Apex is in large part due to the inability of your current management team to foster any kind of viable relationship with your neighbors.

I have also heard it stated that Chatham County would never get any more allocation from Lake Jordan. It’s true our last request for additional allocation in 2002 was denied but it was denied because we couldn’t show the need based on the State’s criteria. At the time we were only using about 1.0 MGD of our total 6.0 MGD allocation. Briar Chapel hadn’t even been approved at the time and we just couldn’t show any kind of trend that would justify the increase. I was personally told at the time by State officials that when Chatham County could document the need, the water supply allocation would be there for us. You have to understand that everyone in the area wants to tie up allocation just like we do. If the State approved all requests that it received it would have exhausted the 100 MGD safe yield of the Lake years ago.

I’ve also heard the comments that the Lake can’t support more withdrawals because it almost dried up during the last drought. Yes, the Lake water level did go down significantly during the drought of 2002. That’s what water supply reservoirs do during a drought. Water is held in storage so that it can be used when the stream flows are low, thus lowering the level of the reservoir. The Corps of Engineers operates Lake Jordan as if it were three separate lakes. There is the flood storage pool, the downstream water quality augmentation pool and the water supply pool. During the 2002 drought the water quality augmentation pool was drawn down significantly but never depleted. The water supply pool was drawn down only slightly and loss of water supply was never an issue. By going to Harnett County you are trading the security of a reliable water supply reservoir for a run-of-the-river intake that is much more at risk during drought conditions than Jordan Lake.

The laws of economics dictate that the more you can produce of a given product with the same fixed cost the lower the cost per unit produced. The water currently being produced from the Jordan Water Plant is relatively expensive due to the fixed cost associated with the infrastructure and personnel required just to keep it functioning. The added cost to produce extra water up to the plant capacity is marginal being just the cost of chemicals and power. Water from Harnett County will probably be cheaper than the current cost of water being produced at the Jordan WTP but I predict it will be much more expensive than the future cost of water from an expanded Jordan WTP ten years down the road.

I don’t expect you all to make an about face based on my comments herein. I would ask only that you have more of a dialogue and get some professional advice from another source other than that of your current engineer of record. You don’t have a professional staff capable of giving you this kind of advice. No offense meant to the current staff. You have some loyal, dedicated staff but they just don’t have the professional background to help you. Your management team made sure that you wouldn’t have the benefit of professional staff advice when they took the requirement for a professional engineer’s license out of the job description for Public Works Director. I also don’t think you can fully rely on advice from your current sole source engineering consultant. The more money you spend on projects the more they make so I don’t see why you should blindly follow their advice. I have no reason to believe that any impropriety has occurred but it just makes good business sense to carefully weigh the advice given by those who will directly benefit from a decision.

Keep in mind that by not having professional expertise on staff and sole sourcing all engineering work that you are acting in contradiction to North Carolina General Statute 143-64.31 which states that it is the public policy of the State and local governments thereof, except in cases of special emergency, to select architectural, engineering or surveying services firms on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualification without regard to fee and thereafter to negotiate a contract for a fair and reasonable fee with the best qualified firm. You are also in violation of your own Standard Procedure No. 1 “SELECTION PROCEDURE FOR ARCHITECTURAL, ENGINEERING AND SURVEYING SERVICES” which was adopted by the Board of Commissioners on March 12th, 2001 and, to my knowledge never revoked.

One last thought: Commissioner Cross was quoted in the N&O today drawing the analogy that the County couldn’t afford the new house so they were going to rent for awhile. My response to that is,” who of use, when our home becomes too small for our family, would go across town and rent a home for part of the family and leave the rest in the original home. When you’re renting you are helping to pay off someone else’s mortgage. " In this situation you are helping to pay off Harnett County’s infrastructure cost instead of your own.

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