OWASA-UNC project should be model

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, January 22, 2005

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the importance of valuing, using and protecting our local water supply. Although the OWASA system provides an abundance of fresh, high-quality water, its vulnerability was apparent during the drought of 2002 when water supplies fell to a harrowing 30 percent of reservoir capacity.

Spurred in part by that experience, OWASA and UNC last year began planning for a water reuse system to meet a significant part of the university's nonpotable water needs. This will involve the reclamation and reuse of highly treated wastewater from the Mason Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant. Much of that water will be channeled toward the university's chiller plants and perhaps ultimately to the cogeneration plant.

When the project comes online in 2007, it will initially reduce water demand by 10 percent. At build-out, the reduction will be 15 percent. This is equivalent to expanding the water supply that much.

OWASA Chairman Mark Marcoplos commented, "The reuse of highly treated wastewater is a progressive, sustainable practice that will help reduce our community's overall demand for drinking water in future years -- and that means we will be better able to cope with future droughts."

Associate Vice Chancellor Carolyn Efland added, "The university is committed to sustainable practices and we are pleased to be able to significantly increase the longevity of the community's potable water resources through this innovative partnership. We look forward to working with OWASA on this important initiative."

Last July, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded the project a $1.8 million grant to cover initial engineering design costs. Bill Holman, executive director of the CWMTF, agrees with Marcoplos that "it's a very progressive approach to wastewater management."

Efficient use of our water supply follows the same hierarchy that is familiar to those concerned about reducing solid waste: reduce, reuse, recycle.

There is a lot that can be done individually and institutionally to improve the efficiency of our water use. When I lived in Iowa, a representative from the power company came to check my energy use. As well as inspecting my insulation, wrapping my hot water pipes, and dropping off a few compact fluorescents, he installed low-flow shower heads, all at no charge. From the power company's perspective, this was to save energy used by the water heater but it also saved many gallons of water.

The UNC/OWASA project falls in the reuse section of the hierarchy. In fact, reused and recycled water are pretty much the same thing (it's not as if you can make some other product out of used water). According to the EPA, "In addition to providing a dependable, locally controlled water supply, water recycling provides tremendous environmental benefits."

Water reuse is a strong expression of our environmental responsibility toward those downstream from us. The reduction in discharge rates from the Mason Farm plant will help protect the quality of water in Jordan Lake.

There are many potential uses for nonpotable treated wastewater. Among the easiest to implement is the irrigation of public parks, landscape or golf courses. Some cities require toilets in large buildings to use recycled water.

There are also a limited but growing number of cases of using recycled water to increase surface water supplies. San Diego plans to augment a drinking water reservoir with advanced treated recycled water.

While there is nothing particularly cutting-edge about the UNC/OWASA collaboration, it does represent a commitment by the university to environmental stewardship and the responsible use of resources. UNC seems to have recognized that as a major institution it can undertake forward-thinking projects that would be difficult for other organizations. UNC and OWASA administrators and planners deserve kudos for the project.

One can only hope that, in Chancellor Moeser's quest for UNC to rank among the world's leading universities, this sort of initiative is applied more generally. What would the equivalent be to applying this sort of progressive approach to the transportation infrastructure of the anticipated Carolina North project? How about meeting the affordable housing needs of UNC staff and junior faculty? Or, what of the livable wages and workplace rights and protections needed by UNC's lowest paid workers?

To meet these challenges requires the university to accept them as fundamental to its mission. Then, as with the water project, responsible partners can be identified to help articulate and implement the solutions. Unfortunately, UNC has often treated such potential partners as adversaries, adopting a defensive stance that impedes achievement of the best outcomes.

A threatened resource globally, water is basic to life and is a great place to start a new trend in collaborative problem-solving.

There are many other challenges to follow.



Since this column appeared, I have heard that the OWASA board is considering a broad, long-term conservation strategy. Perhaps someone knowledgable could add a comment on it.

OWASA=Overpriced Water and Sewer Authority

100% agree with you Jack!

OWASA is the perpetrator of another "liberal folly" as I like to call it--messing with the immutable laws of supply and demand...After the drought was over, OWASA started charging what they called "conservation rates"--charging more so you would use less. And then lo and behold, OWASA comes out and says "everyone did such a good job conserving that we didn't make enough $$ so we're going to have to charge you EVEN more for water."

The same is true for trash pickup and recycling--"everyone did such a good job recycling that not as much stuff is going into the landfill which means that we're not making as many $$ from the landfill so we are going to have to charge you even more for your trash!"


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