What's our secret?

So I've been wondering why our neighbors to the east and south have been generally freaking out over water, while Orange County has none of our familiar mandatory conservation rules in place. (I got so used to it in 2002 that I started to enjoy showering with a bucket that I then used to water my garden.)

I feel like I should know this, but is our lack of drought due solely to OWASA's now-permanent conservation measures or are there other factors keeping our western end of the Triangle moister this year?

Either way, kudos to OWASA for continuing Orange County's position of environmental superiority in the Triangle.

Roses to Orange Water and Sewer Authority, for the long-range planning and year-round conservation measures that have kept our taps flowing while Raleigh and many other nearby areas face a water-supply crisis.

OWASA has two reservoirs to draw on, University Lake and Cane Creek, and learned a lot of hard lessons from the severe drought of three years ago. The result is that while much of the rest of the Triangle struggles with parched lake beds and mandatory water restrictions, the recent long dry spell hasn't caused much disruption in our territory.

That's not to say it can't happen here again. It can. And although the glorious soaking showers of early this week surely helped, we'll do well to remain watchful and judicious in our use of water.

- Chapel Hill News, 11/22/05



Supply details from the OWASA Exec Director:

"Our Cane Creek/Universty Lake reservoir system is currently 57% full, which means that we have ~1.9 billion gallons of water in storage. This would last approximately 190 days (6+ months) at an average demand of 10 million gallons per day (mgd). Actual demands are expected to be about 8 mgd during the next few months. News reports and conversations with local staff indicate that the Raleigh and Durham systems will be depleted by mid-January at current demand levels without additional reservoir inflow. Our situation is substantially less severe than it was in 2002 because we started the summer season with our reservoirs 100% full. We began the summer of 2002 with the reservoirs 72% full. The next several months are important for our longer term prospects. If our system is not full by March or April, we'll probably be recommending additional water use restrictions."

Thanks, Terri. So are our resevoirs more full because of the conservation efforts or better engineering or some other factor?

I don't think anyone knows for sure but the feeling is that in addition to the affects of the year round conservation measures, new construction and renovations are utilizing more water-saving fixtures and appliances.

I have a hard time buying that argument. http://owasa.org/pages/supplydemandgraph.asp seems to show similar if not higher demand since the 2002 problems (in the lower graph).

And the upper graph seems to say to me that this drought we have heard so much about isn't yet as long-lasting (at least in our area).

I can remember early '05 being wet -- it delayed construction on our new house!

It was interesting that a couple of months ago when Durham & Raleigh decided they needed to impose mandatory conservation measures, they looked remarkably similar to our current year-round measures.

Demand has been down from projections since the 2001-02 drought. First it was because of an abundance of rainfall during the year following the drought. Then it became apparent that demand was down in general. Clearly the many local projects such as rainwater reclamation & re-use at Smith Middle School, stormwater collection for irrigation on the UNC campus, a significant effort by UNC to reduce water use, and a significant effort by many customers to reduce water use in reaction to the drought have contributed to this lower demand. Kudos to all involved and it makes me proud to be a member of this community.

Also, during the drought, OWASA asked the state for and was granted temporary permission to recycle the "process water" (used to clean filters) at the water treatment plant. Previously, this water was being discharged into a stream that led to Morgan Creek. This was effectively saving about 10% of the daily demand. After the drought, OWASA asked the state to allow this on a permanent basis. After much study, the state concluded that the water quality of the re-treated "process water" was excellent and this recycling could be instituted permanently. So overall this translates into about 10% more water in the reservoirs than we would have had without it. Plus, the local stream ecosystem is better off.

Also affecting the situation are the vagaries of the weather. I remember during the 01-02 drought that Durham & Raleigh would sometimes receive rainfall that we did not get. The opposite has happened occasionally during this drought.

But it is a success story and shows that the OWASA Board and staff and the local governments were pro-active after the drought in instituting measures that would prevent us from being caught in an emergency situation the way we were before.

I'm sure the population growth of Wake County and the areas served by that water supply are also contributing to its more serious water shortages as well. It's estimated that Wake County gets 400 new residents each week.

I have lived here a very long time and remember when water shortages were chronic. OWASA has done a great job educating us about simple ways to conserve water. I also got some low flow showerheads from OWASA---are they still available for the public?
Mark, I didn't know about the process water recycling--that's great!

Yes - the showerheads and other simple water-savings tools are available free from OWASA. I think they have toilet dye tablets (dye your tank water & see if there's a leak into the bowl but don't freak if you see your cat has a blue tongue...), toilet flush reducing flappers, and some other stuff.

And, I'll take this opportunity to spread the word on a great new toilet. Toto, the reknowned manufacturer of the best bang-for-the-buck low-flush toilet (about $130 for a top-tier flusher), has done it again. They now offer a dual-flush model with two semi-circular buttons on top of the tank. Press the small button for "liquid waste" and it only releases .9 gallons. Mash the big button for big jobs and it releases 1.5 or so gallons. It will save about 7000 gallons per year, which translates to about $30 in water savings.

Excellent on the two button toilets, I saw those all over Germany and I've always wondered why we don't have them here.

Mark Marcoplos and the OWASA Board and OWASA staff deserve a lot of credit for recognizing potential problems and preparing to address them in advance. This is exactly the kind of thing that Mark M and others have been advocating on for years and it is gratifying to see his (and others') efforts begin to pay off.

With all due respect to OWASA, here's a two-step process for safeguarding water supplies (not exactly regional planning):

1) Get the local state university to leverage support of adding reservoir capacity (Cane Creek, instead of pumping from Jordan Lake);

2) Restrict development around your perimeter, so that other towns in the region get to deal with the growth and water demand that are emerging around every major airport in the country. (This also helps leave space and low land prices for Cane Creek reservoirs!)

Stop it, Jeff.

Jeff wrote:

2) Restrict development around your perimeter, so that other towns in the region get to deal with the growth and water demand that are emerging around every major airport in the country. (This also helps leave space and low land prices for Cane Creek reservoirs!)

Jeff, maybe I'm missing your point, but isn't this what the rural buffer is designed to do? I thought the whole point of the Rural Buffer and Joint Planning Agreement was to establish a limit to urban/suburban growth.

It is interesting that all of you are talking about what OWASA or UNC or yourself have done to conserve water and this is why Chapel Hill and Carrboro are in good shape. Also mention above was that the lakes were at 100% at the beginning of summer whereas they were 72% back in 02.

Only Mark mention in passing Mother Nature who is a major partner in keeping the lakes full. May I remind you all we did not have a tropical strom pass through our area this year. I heard a recent news report that said we get 25% of our yearly rainfall from these stroms. So give Mother Nature a pat on the back as well.


I'm looking at the rural buffer in the regional perspective, since the Triangle is a single economic unit (as I'm sure you appreciate with your commute to Raleigh). The buffer is just a small fraction of our region.

By way of analogy, imagine CHC were an isolated college town, like Charlottesville. Then imagine that only the area south of town, to Chatham and into Chatham, were buffered. Would that limit growth? Not really. Growth would happen in all other directions. Eventually it would sprawl farther out in those directions because it was limited south of town, where development could have happened closer.

Here's a real life example -- the Erwin Tract of 30-40 acres that local governments are spending $1.5 million to prevent from being developed. What will happen to the people who would have lived in those 40 or so houses? Will they decide not to move to the Triangle based on that? No, they'll just live with longer commutes. In a more far-fetched rhetorical question, would those 40 or so families just fail to materialize, sparing the U.S. and the world their resource consumption? That's not going to happen either.

The effects of Orange's rural buffer are similar. The people who would have lived there, live instead farther away, with longer commutes.

The argument could be made that the Triangle will grow less if a few thousand acres are low-zoned. I suspect it will just sprawl more, but I concede the plausibility of the argument.

What if I'm wrong about that? Who benefits if a few thousand families end up in Charlotte instead of the Triangle? I'll bet Orange could manage higher density than they'll find elsewhere.

The argument could be made that in the long term (certainly not in the short) the preservation of such buffers will limit resource consumption by limiting population growth. That's a stretch, but let's just take it up for a moment. The basis of that argument is that by making housing more expensive and commutes longer, some people decide to have less children. Or, the U.S. decides to allow less immigration (de facto or de jure, whichever way).

The argument could be made that only the buffer has forced CHC into higher-density infill. Like Ulysses tied to the mast during the sirens' song. I'm not sure the buffer has done that. I think the pressure for in-town infill would exist anyway. Besides, Chapel Hill is in the process of reversing infill potential in a host of "historic" neighborhoods.

Housing developments from Alamance to Chatham to Durham point to the demand for housing near Chapel Hill, and/or along the interstates. The immediate effect of the rural buffer is to push the housing demand farther away. We could call this the anti-infill effect.

I think a buffer has some merits. I would design it differently -- corridors of high-density housing, with farms in-between, as I've seen across western Europe.

The Triangle's most immediate solution to sprawl could be with impressively high-density housing transforming RTP. I realize that's complex, with legislative involvement, etc.

Sorry for the length. I've thought about all this for a long time.

But Jeff, the good feelings we get from "preserving land" surely must equate to doing good!

Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate the explanation. I largely agree with your analysis and I think you're dead on right about one of the solutions to sprawl could be more housing in RTP. And, yes, it complex.

Do not fall out Vanke, but I agree with you regarding low zoning of some areas. The issue of rural buffers and green space is a very complex one. Many factors play a part in how residential subdivisions in the Triangle are developed: 1) the reputation and quality of schools; 2) the number and quality of jobs in certain areas; 3) the value of property and the decrease of farming in North Carolina and other areas; 4) the lack of safe and affordable housing in some parts of the Triangle; 5) the lack of a recognition of the benefits of infill to the preservation of large tracts of green space; the location of infrastructure and the type of infrastructure. I could go on. What I do know is that we need to proactive in encouraging greater public transportation , and more dense developments in areas where the infrastructure already exists, and encourage developers to provide places for public transportation and the preservation of green space through the Triangle, not just in Orange County.

From the OWASA General Manager:

Just a quick note to let you know that the recent rains and related flows in the tributary streams brought our lakes up to 64% full as of this morning.

The lakes were 56% full on November 27th, so we have gained about 265 million gallons since then. Stream inflows to our reservoirs are also up considerably, and we expect further increases in our lake levels as a result of the recent rainfall.

Demand in the last 30 days averaged about 8.1 million gallons per day (mgd). If reservoir withdrawals were to continue at that rate, our current supply would last more than 8 months.

We continue to send daily water supply and demand updates on weekdays to various local media and the local governments, as well as posting this information on our Website.

Can this be right today?

Lake Levels

University Lake: -11.00" below full
Change from previous day +27.25"

Cane Creek: (our primary water supply) -62.25" below full
Change from previous day +18.00"

Total Availability Supply: 76.0% of capacity

Anybody here go by Univ Lake today and notice it up 2 feet??!

I haven't gone by Univ Lake but I did notice that a shallow pond located off of Whitfield Rd that was virtually dry this time last week looked essentially full this morning.

Of all the factors contributing to the recent precipitation I believe my daily rain dance has had the most effect.


I'm sure it's right. We had heavy precip--and the ground was pretty wet from previous rain--so most of it ran into the creeks. (The creek behind my house was WILD.) Eventually those creeks end up in the lakes...

And the water level rises. DOesn't do much for the GROUND WATER levels--my guess is that people with wells are hoping for a snowy winter.



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