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Sep 25, 2023

Pilot Program Aims to Help Connect Those on Private Wells to CFPUA Water Service

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

At the October 11 regular meeting of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Board, my fellow board members and I will consider approval of an interlocal agreement (ILA) with New Hanover County to connect dozens of homes in the Rockhill community to CFPUA water service.

Rockhill, located in the Castle Hayne area, is an older community, and many of its residents rely on groundwater wells for drinking water. A number of these wells are tainted by contamination, including PFAS originating from the Chemours plant in Bladen County. Last November, about 20 Rockhill residents attended a CFPUA Board meeting to ask what could be done to help connect their homes to CFPUA water service.

This ILA will use $500,000 allocated by New Hanover County to fund a pilot program to connect homes in Rockhill that are adjacent to an existing CFPUA water main. It is one example of the work underway by CFPUA and County staff since we heard from the residents of Rockhill – and other neighborhoods throughout New Hanover County – who currently have private drinking water wells but would like to explore becoming CFPUA water service customers, often because of concerns about PFAS contamination. The connection pilot program will pay fees and other costs to install a service line, meter, and other infrastructure necessary to bring CFPUA water from nearby mains to homes in Rockhill. Benefiting residents then will become CFPUA customers, responsible for the monthly bills.

The pilot program is the medium-term solution of a three-pronged approach by CFPUA and New Hanover County to address the issue of clean water access for residents with private drinking water wells. The short-term solution – using $40,000 in County funds to install community water stations to provide access to treated drinking water for residents with tainted wells – was approved at the September CFPUA Board meeting and is underway. The third part aims to tackle the most complicated and costly part of this challenge: extending mains (water and sewer) to existing properties that are too far from existing pipes to connect. This is necessarily a long-term solution and will start with a study to prioritize neighborhoods throughout New Hanover County based on health risks and other needs.

When most people move into a new home, they don’t wonder where they will get their drinking water or how they will handle sewer services. They assume the home already is connected to services from a utility like CFPUA, and they just have to become a customer. This is true, in most cases, because a developer constructed the water and sewer infrastructure in conjunction with the building of homes and roads. After the development was complete, the water and sewer pipes and other infrastructure were conveyed to CFPUA and became part of our system. Although many take the access to water and sewer services for granted, hundreds of homes in New Hanover County rely on private wells for drinking water and septic systems to handle household wastewater.

Reliance on private wells and septic systems may be by choice. Except in a few, limited instances, North Carolina prohibits utilities from mandating service connections, so property owners may choose not to connect, even when a main is adjacent to their homes. In other cases, homes may rely on private wells or septic systems because water or sewer service was not available at the location when the home was built. This is true of many of the older neighborhoods in unincorporated parts of New Hanover County, like Rockhill. Development, including the extension of water and sewer mains, subsequently may have occurred around these homes, but the new mains were either too far to allow a simple connection or, if the mains were adjacent, the homeowner never opted to pay the costs to connect.

To connect to water service, a property must be adjacent to an existing main. In most cases, “adjacent” means under or alongside the street bordering a property. Connecting involves tapping the main and extending a service line to a meter, which must be installed. The customer then must hire a licensed plumber to install a line on the private side from the meter to the home plumbing. Costs vary depending on individual situations. To connect to water service, the total cost for fees and public and private side construction and materials is about $10,000, on average. Once connected, the homeowner then becomes a CFPUA customer, responsible for monthly bills.

Complexity and costs balloon if a water or sewer main must be extended. Installing a water main is rarely a build-it-and-they-will-come proposition. For one thing, it can be very costly, approximately $500 per foot. CFPUA is a government entity, operating at no profit. Our operations and capital projects are funded almost entirely by existing customers. While occasionally grants or other non-ratepayer-sourced funding covers some or even all the cost to extend water distribution or wastewater collection infrastructure, in most cases, as described above, this is completed by a developer when a new residential or commercial development is built. If a home or other structure is located too far from a water main, the costs to extend the main would fall to the property owner or be shared among a group of property owners who request an extension under CFPUA’s existing petition-based growth policy.

Until just a few years ago, this situation was generally acceptable for many of those with private drinking water wells or septic systems. The County and CFPUA did work several years ago to extend sewer lines to the Marquis Hills and Heritage Park neighborhoods, where many septic systems were failing. Inquiries from private well owners who wanted to connect to CFPUA’s water service, however, were fairly rare. 

That changed shortly after November 2021, when the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality determined that Chemours is responsible for PFAS contamination of groundwater monitoring wells and water supply wells in four Lower Cape Fear River counties, including New Hanover. The State ordered Chemours to begin testing private drinking water wells for contamination by its PFAS and identify residents who may be eligible for replacement drinking water supplies. DEQ’s announcement and the growing number of private wells turning up tainted with Chemours’ PFAS began to draw public attention. So did the completion last fall of new filters at CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant to remove Chemours’ PFAS during treatment. As a result, inquiries about water service connections have increased dramatically, from about a dozen before November 2021 to requests to connect hundreds of properties since then.

CFPUA staff have been working on several fronts to try to facilitate these connection requests, including seeking funds to help pay for them. In addition to the short-, medium-, and long-term strategies developed with New Hanover County, our staff also are and will be requesting funds through programs such as the State Revolving Fund. Separately, the recently approved State budget provides $18 million to CFPUA to pay for drinking water extensions for unserved communities.

Addressing the surge in connection requests will take money, and it will take time. The pilot program to connect residents in Rockhill is a significant starting point for the ongoing work with the County and others to provide safe, reliable drinking water to private well owners in our community.

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