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Drinking Water Drying Up

by Becky Johnson


Second in a three part series exclusive to the Prism

Water use in Orange County has doubled in the past ten years — increasing twice as fast as population growth.

Finding unpolluted land for new drinking water reservoirs gets harder and harder as the population swells. As more land is built up and paved over, less water gets through to the water table and, ultimately, to the current reservoir supplies.

To slake this thirst, Orange County needs strong controls on the rate and form of development. Orange County could—with the political will—limit the amount of pavement accompanying development and could make industry and development bear a financial cost for its disproportional use of water.

A new Orange County reservoir, Cane Creek, was built just ten years ago, but already Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) is looking for additional sources of water to quench the insatiable population of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Why does the demand for water grow so much more rapidly than it would if it increased at the same rate the population grows?

  • For one, business and industry, which accompany growth, use far more water than households do. A new business might use 10 times as much water as a new resident.
  • Also, bigger and newer homes use more water, according to Ed Holland, the planning director for OWASA. Town residents, who account for the majority of the population increase, use more water than rural residents for lawns, cars, washing machines, and dishwashers.

Who Owns Our Water: Source and Quality

Although OWASA provides water to two-thirds of Orange County, it is not a public utility. The Authority is a private, for-profit company.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County appoint nine members to an OWASA board, with 5, 2, and 2, members respectively. But this board serves an advisory function only. The bottom line is that a private industry has monopoly-like control over water and holds no obligation to the government or people.

Cane Creek water quality is among the best in the state, according to county and OWASA officials. A recent watershed study of Cane Creek cited the water quality as "generally good" and "acceptable, but not pristine." While Orange County watershed protections are among the best in North Carolina, "certain modifications are needed to manage degradation due to future development", according to the study.

The three-year watershed study, released last spring, was funded by OWASA at a cost of $180,000. The purpose of the study was to figure out how many homes per acre can be built on the 16,000 acres in the Cane Creek water shed without hurting the current water quality.

Water quality is predicted to deteriorate substantially as residential development exceeds 25 percent buildout. Algal blooms are predicted to quadruple in frequency as development approaches 100 percent buildout, the study states. Presumably, county zoning ordinances will be amended to avoid these problems. (The entire study can be viewed online at .)

Until 1989, University Lake was the only reservoir for Orange County. Water shortages plagued Chapel Hill and Carrboro during the summer. Town laws discouraged people from washing their cars or watering their lawns during the chronic droughts.

Then, in 1989, OWASA built the Cane Creek reservoir, and the available water supply jumped from 3 million to 13 million gallons of water a day.

Today, 7 million gallons are pumped from the Cane Creek reservoir, through underground pipes, past the treatment plant, and into the homes and businesses of Orange County every day. (University Lake reservoir serves as a back-up supply.)

Of course, OWASA does not provide water to everyone in Orange County. Many rural residents rely entirely on well water. The town of Hillsborough pumps water from the Eno River. Lake Orange serves as a holding reservoir and flood control along the shore. But Hillsborough is planning to expand its water capacity with a new water holding reservoir, which will take up to a year to complete, according to Hillsborough town planners.

Unpolluted parcels of land for reservoirs are becoming scarcer and more expensive. Greensboro is planning a 3000-acre reservoir on land that has been cited as mildly contaminated and was once a landfill, according to Chapel Hill resident Jon Kent of Stream Watch.

Future Sources: Jordan Lake

When Cane Creek and University Lake no longer meet Orange County's water needs, Jordan Lake will be the only large-scale option.

The county could face future water shortages only if elected officials do not plan ahead—or if they keep allowing new developments, according to Ed Holland, planning director of OWASA, in an interview last spring. Meadowmont, for example, will cause a substantial drain on the reservoir's capacity.

"We will need additional water by 2030," said Ed Holland, planning director of OWASA. But, if water use continues to grow at its present rate, the county may exceed its capacity as early as 2020.

OWASA already pays an annual fee to keep 10 million gallons, a tenth of Jordan Lake's capacity, 'on hold'. So when the county needs the water it will be there, said Holland.

"No one knows where schools are going to be in 15 years or where we are going to be putting our trash in 15 years, " said Holland, "but I can tell you with a fair amount of confidence where we will be getting our water for the next 50."

But when it comes to water, how far ahead should we plan? Is 50 years enough? Even with another 10 million gallons per day from Jordan Lake, if water use keeps rising, the county could exceed the Jordan Lake limit by 2060.

On a more immediate scale, citizens, officials and OWASA members alike are worried about the potential water quality of Jordan Lake.

"Other than Jordan Lake, Orange County has nowhere to go," said Barry Jacobs, chairman of the OWASA board (and at the time of writing, Democratic candidate for Orange County Commissioner).

Development around Jordan Lake is growing closer and closer. A land-use or human impact study has never been conducted around the lake, say county and OWASA officials. A watershed study for Jordan Lake is needed to assess how much development is "reasonable" around the future drinking source, according to Holland.

But a Jordan Lake watershed study would cost a few hundred thousand dollars.

"Everyone who could be taking water from Jordan Lake has an interest in the water quality," Jacobs said. "Durham, Orange, and Chatham counties, Cary, and the state of North Carolina should all pool together for funds," suggests Jacobs.

Water as a Non-renewable Resource

Not only are there limits on the natural water supply—current human activities are threatening the existing ground water table.

Cane Creek reservoir, like any stream, river, or lake, is replenished mostly by ground water. But parking lots, roads, roofs, and brick-laid plazas stop the rain from getting through to the water table.

"The water cycle depends on water soaking into the ground," said Roger Hansard, a water quality specialist with the US Natural Resources Conservation Service in Raleigh. "If water cannot soak through these hard, "impervious" surfaces, the ground water source could be in jeopardy," said Hansard.

When a Wal-Mart, for example, moves in and covers a few acres, the rain can not filter through. That much less water makes it into the ground water, which ultimately feeds the reservoir supply.

Developers are required to limit such impervious surfaces like concrete and roofs because of town and county zoning ordinances, but it is not enough. "Planners need to think even more in terms of limiting impervious surfaces," said Hansard.

Lawns are also bad for the water table flow. Only half the amount of water that normally soaks into the ground in forests can get through the compacted soil beneath a lawn's root system. Mulch gardens are a better alternative, recommends Hansard.

What to Do

When and where does the buck stop? Will we continue to allow irresponsible water use by industry and the more wasteful households to threaten everyone's water supply? Will development continue to degrade our water quality and interrupt the natural ground water cycle at the expense of all?

Right now, town and county government officials have the power of zoning ordinances—zoning ordinances to limit impervious surfaces and to control growth and sprawl. Government also has the power to tax industry and development for the detrimental effects they have on the community water supply. Government also has the power to put pressure on OWASA when needed.

Citizens have the power to make personal choices about water use. Installing high-pressure faucet and showerheads cuts down on the amount of water you need. Putting a couple of bricks in your toilet tank saves half a gallon each time the toilet is flushed.

After an extensive lobbying push, Cary succeeded in buying water rights from Raleigh last month. But this tempest in a teapot compares little to the storms brewing globally.

Unless sustainable water use is implemented, future world wars will likely be fought over water. Orange County need not follow that path.

To voice concern, OWASA meets at 7:00, the 4th Thursday of the month at Chapel Hill Town Hall.

For tips on personal water conservation, check out www.owasa.org.


Becky Johnson majors in Journalism and Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill, and lives in Chapel Hill as well.


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