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Under Pressure

By Johanna F. Still, posted Jul 7, 2023
The water tower in Hampstead looms over the growing Pender County community. The county is working to address present and future water system issues. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
On paper, Pender County has plenty of water capacity. But in reality, rapid growth has outpaced the county water transmission system’s capabilities, prompting officials to take a proactive step to intervene. 

Pender County announced in April it was suspending water irrigation meters for new development in large swaths of the county, including Hampstead, Scotts Hill, east of Interstate 40 in Rocky Point and along N.C. 210.

Questions remain as to whether the county’s current water infrastructure can keep up with the pending pipeline of growth as officials race to complete major upgrade projects designed to alleviate strain on the system. 

The county’s announcement of the irrigation meter suspension, titled “Pender County Utilities prepares for 2023 water shortage,” sent off alarm bells for some in the development community. Tyler Newman, president and CEO of the business advocacy group Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE), said he is hoping to gain insights as to how the system will handle current demand combined with demand approved but not yet built.

“The concern, obviously, is that we could have a situation where the system is already over-allocated – leading to a functional moratorium,” he said.  


STRESSED OUT


Pender County’s population ballooned nearly 26% between 2010 and 2022, according to census estimates, at a growth rate twice as fast as the state’s. 

All those new residents – about 13,500 – have exacerbated demands on the county’s utility system and necessitated major upgrades. The situation became nearly dire in the spring and summer of 2019 amid tourist season and a drought, when county water utilities across the Cape Fear region hit record water demands, and officials asked residents to curtail nonessential water use. 

Kenny Keel, Pender County Utilities (PCU) director, said the system was, at the time, “dangerously low on water.” Since then, the county added two new wells in 2020 to mitigate the strain. Still, several major upgrades are necessary to meet demand. 

“While additional wells have increased the availability of water in the Hampstead area, the system remains stressed,” Keel said. 

In its 2022 Local Water Supply Plan, a report submitted to state regulators annually, the county recorded its demand as 27% of its available supply. Asked how this can be so, given the recent irrigation restriction and concerns about a looming water shortage, officials point to the issue of transmission versus treatment capacity. 

Pender’s water treatment capacity – the system’s ability to clean raw water for consumption – has a healthy amount of leeway (its water treatment plant can filter up to 4 million gallons a day, or MGD, and average metered use last year was about 1.4 MGD). But its water transmission capacity – how well the utility moves water throughout the system – appears to be inadequate.

“This challenge is particularly acute in the fast-growing parts of the county such as Hampstead and Scotts Hill,” Keel said. “PCU’s single 12-inch water line that runs along N.C. Highway 210 has insufficient transmission capacity to move water from PCU’s primary treatment source to the U.S. 17 corridor. PCU has taken multiple steps to resolve this ‘bottleneck,’ including identifying sites for wells in the Hampstead area to increase water supply on the eastern side of the county.”


LONG GAME, NOT LAWN GAME


A consequence of reduced transmission capacity is reduced water pressure. Sufficient water pressure “is critical to providing fire suppression and protection that in turn impacts insurance rates for homeowners and businesses,” Keel said. 

A spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said utilities have the flexibility to impose irrigation suspensions at will.

Last year, Pender County issued 254 irrigation meters, according to data provided by county staff. With an irrigation meter, homeowners can employ an in-ground sprinkler system to maintain their lawns, which is billed at a different rate because it uses reclaimed water – clean enough for watering grass but not intended for human consumption, according to Keel. 

“Not being able to put in an irrigation meter means a new home would be hand watering the grass with a hose,” said Newman of BASE. 
While there are viable workarounds, the restriction does present an inconvenience for developers aiming to install new landscaping and sod. 

“I think we’re trying to look at it in the bigger picture, not just individual lots not being able to get an irrigation meter. But what does it mean? And what does it mean for growth in the region?” Newman said. “If there’s not enough water, and there’s not enough pressure, then they’re not going to be able to issue new services.”

So far, the irrigation restriction hasn’t yet caused developers or investors to reconsider plans, according to Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association. It has, however, prompted more negotiations between developers and county officials in arrangements such as developer agreements, Moore said, which can help outline tailored utility installation and use in specific subdivisions. Talks surrounding developers initiating private extensions of public lines are also ongoing. 

“I think Pender has done a pretty good job of trying to get out ahead of this and alert the developer community and the general public,” Moore said. “We’ve got a short-term issue with irrigation meters right now. But we need to look at a long-term situation, so we don’t end up in these conversations again.” 


DOING THE MATH


Keel said three new wells are under construction. These are “emergency wells that are intended to address the short-term water transmission capacity issues that have caused water shortages in the Hampstead area,” he said. 

One of those wells is expected to be active by December, and the other two are anticipated to be completed in early 2024. Once they’re online, Keel said “the current and potential future water shortages will be significantly mitigated.”

Expected to be finished by spring 2024, a new water tower is also being constructed in the Scotts Hill area that will improve fire flow, which refers to rules for how quickly water must move to maintain adequate pressure. The three wells and new tower are part of a $13.3 million project that broke ground in February. In all, Pender County Utilities has about $108 million in capital projects underway to increase capacity and improve service. 

The county is also under contract to purchase land in the Hampstead area near the intersection of N.C. 210 and U.S. 17 to construct a reverse osmosis water treatment plant. Keel described the completion of this new plant as “the ultimate solution” to address water shortage concerns.

Estimated to cost about $80 million to build, the expense for the new plant will be offset by a nearly $49 million state grant the county has secured, Keel said, while the remaining funds will be borrowed. This project is poised to source water from a planned 10 to 15 wells. 

“The county is moving with deliberate speed on completing the reverse osmosis water treatment plant,” Keel said. 

Coordination with DEQ is underway to ensure permitting “moves expeditiously so that construction is not delayed,” Keel said, and due diligence is taking place to guarantee “there is sufficient space for the building, wells, and the irrigation fields.” 

Newman said county officials have been forthcoming, proactive and communicative about the shortage concerns thus far. “We’re all trying to figure out the potential timeline for solving the issue,” he said. “Is it 2024? 2025?”

County officials are still working out the math to determine what the demands will look like once already-approved developments start pulling resources from the system. 

“If a 500-lot subdivision comes in, in the interim, how does that impact the numbers?” Newman said. “I think everybody’s just trying to do math and figure out what it means for the future in hopes that it doesn’t lead to a moratorium.”

On the other side of the utility equation, sewer capacity is “unfortunately” not currently a conversation piece, Moore said. “That’s a whole other story.”

Read more about Pender County: 
Riding Surf City’s vacation rental wave
Pender looks to sell hospital to Novant
Rental houseboats buoy local marina
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