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Sep 5, 2023

Applying Lessons From the Past to Plan For the Future

Sponsored Content provided by Jennifer Adams - Chairwoman, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority first opened for business in July 2008, following the successful merger of existing water and sewer systems that had been managed by the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County. Of all the drivers for combining the two systems, the overriding reason, and the one most longer-term residents likely recall, was a spate of major sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) that occurred in the five or so years prior CFPUA’s first day of operations.

From fiscal year 2003-04 to fiscal year 2007-08, records show 156 sanitary sewer overflow events, releasing a total of 11.24 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the environment. This ultimately led to a Consent Decree with the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 that laid out steps CFPUA would have to undertake to rehabilitate and upgrade our community’s wastewater system and greatly reduce the risk of SSOs. These projects included the Northeast Interceptor, which allows for wastewater flows to be shifted between the Northside and Southside wastewater treatment plants, as well as the replacement of nearly a mile of sewer main between Bradley and Hewletts creeks.

These and other Consent Decree-related projects cost tens of millions of dollars, and they worked. In 2018, EPA lifted the Consent Decree. In the process, CFPUA staff developed best practices that continue today and are responsible for keeping the number and volume of SSOs to a fraction of what they were prior to CFPUA’s formation. The five fiscal years starting July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2023, saw a total of 55 SSOs accounting for 2.7 million gallons of wastewater released. That’s 56 percent fewer in number and 94 percent less in volume than the five years prior to CFPUA’s first day of business.

This provides helpful historical context for those who are newly arrived or those who may have forgotten how CFPUA came into being, but I relate it mainly as a dramatic illustration of why 32.2 percent of the $648 million in CFPUA’s 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is for rehabilitation and repair of infrastructure you rarely, if ever, see. These are “linear assets,” the pipes, valves, and other infrastructure that convey drinking water from our treatment plants and groundwater wells to customers’ homes and businesses and wastewater from those homes and businesses to our wastewater treatment plants.

Maintaining linear assets – currently including 1,187 miles of water mains and 1,090 miles of sewer mains – requires substantial investment. The events that led up to the creation of CFPUA and the EPA consent order are a reminder that not making this investment may cost far more, not just in dollar terms but also in potential harm to our environment.

In addition to CFPUA Board meetings, we also have subcommittees focusing on different aspects of the organization.  One of these is the Long Range Planning Committee, whose most recent meeting last month featured an overview of CFPUA’s linear asset management program, as well as some of the history I related above. The overview was presented by Carel Vandermeyden, CFPUA Deputy Executive Director for Treatment and Engineering. I want to highlight a few portions of Carel’s presentation on the technologies CFPUA staff and our contractors are using to inspect, prioritize, and make repairs on the miles of pipes beneath our streets.

Of course, various segments of the miles of water and sewer pipes were installed over various periods. Some of it is brand new, but much of it has been in the ground for years or decades. Just last year, staff removed a water valve that had been in service for 110 years. That might sound like a long time, but CFPUA assumes a 100-year useful life for these linear assets when projecting the annual spending needed for rehabilitation and replacement. 

The growth of Wilmington and New Hanover County over the years has been accompanied by the installation of pipes and other water and wastewater infrastructure necessary to serve the residents and businesses in our expanding community. Using available records and reasonable extrapolation, we can plot how the costs to repair or replace this infrastructure will increase over time if we wait for the full 100-year useful life expectancy. If we did wait, this analysis estimates customers in 2088 – our children and their descendants – would be facing a single-year bill of more than $130 million for work on pipes and other equipment installed around 1988. Instead of waiting, CFPUA takes the approach of making regular, considerable investments in rehabilitation and replacement of the water and wastewater infrastructure.

Prioritizing rehabilitation or replacement projects is an ongoing process of assessing assets, weighing the risks and consequences of failure, and planning for and executing the work. A good example is the Find-it, Fix-it program focused on the wastewater collection system. As the name implies, Find It, Fix It involves assessing the condition of sewer mains, manholes, and other assets using a remote camera and repairing what this assessment discovers. Instead of digging up streets, these repairs often involve minimally disruptive techniques that include temporarily diverting the flow from a pipe, cleaning to bring the pipe at or near its original carrying capacity, and applying a cure-in-place liner. Find-it, Fix-it methodology was applied to a grant-funded project in 2017 that assessed the condition of and repaired 4.4 miles of sewer mains and 134 sewer manholes downtown and prioritized them for any rehabilitation work. This type of work will continue, but CFPUA already is seeing the payoff in reduced work orders for sewer repairs.

Work on water mains has also been ongoing, but until recently, technology to safely permit in-place lining had not matured. CFPUA staff is evaluating a pilot project using a promising water-based liner.

These are just some of the methods and projects ongoing at CFPUA to approach the maintenance of our water and wastewater systems using industry best practices and financial prudence. I encourage anyone who geeks out about this stuff like I do to check out the entire presentation here.

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