Should OWASA pursue access to Jordan Lake water?

Despite serious misgivings among some local officials, OWASA is moving forward on discussions with the City of Durham, Chatham County, Orange County, and other neighboring jurisdictions to secure future access to Jordan Lake water.

There is a lot of pressure from Chatham County because they over-built beyond their capacity to provide water during the high growth heyday of the Bunky Morgan era.  OWASA is a valuable ally to these other jurisdictions because it owns a prime piece of land on the west shore of Jordan Lake that is ideal for a water intake.

OWASA does not need Jordan Lake water. While there will be a brief period of time from about 2025-2030 (just before the Quarry reservoir becomes available) when demand could possibly out-strip supply, there are many opportunities to achieve more effective water conservation. The bottom line is that we can navigate through those few years without incurring the huge expense of accessing Jordan Lake water, without entangling ourselves with other jurisdictions who have a more irresponsible approach to policies of growth and sustainability, and without risking OWASA's independence.

We need to avoid a future in which OWASA might be gradually subsumed into a regional water utility that is at the behest of "grow first, think later" community leaders. There are financial and water quality concerns. OWASA and Orange County manage one of the cleanest watersheds in the country and we have all benefited from our local progressive growth management & environmental policies. We don't need Jordan Lake water, so why would we take serious risks on behalf of neighboring jurisdictions who are hoping OWASA helps bail them out of some questinnable planning decisions? 



the only way I know how!

... is to write interesting, informative, local posts like this one and then wait a couple of hours for me to check in and promote it to the front (as I did as soon as I saw this). I don't mind people gaming it by commenting (once) because it's a way of the community having some say, but it does sometimes make me less likely to properly front-page a post when the author immediately posts the first comment.More on this at

Whatever the access and water supply issues might be with regards to OWASA, there is an issue of affordability and economic viability with water rates in Orange County. Owasa for a long time has been a high quality water utility but recent excessive cost increases have impacted affordability and had a heavy impact on residents of modest and fixed incomes. High water rates are adding an additional burdent to the affordability of living in already expensive Orange County.


Below is an open letter I recently sent to OWASA as well as Chapel Hill and Orange County governments, I will let the letter express my concerns:


I am writing to express my concern and outrage at the continuing water rate increases being implemented by OWASA. The vicious cycle of annual residential rate increases many times the rate of inflation is rapidly making water unaffordable to OWASA customers.


I feel strongly that these exorbitant increases are unwarranted, reflective of poor management decisions, and have set-up a vicious cycle of rate increases leading to reduction of water usage, which leads to further rate increases, leading to further usage reduction, ad infinitum. This system of rate management is not sustainable and is creating a situation of unaffordable water service for the citizens served by OWASA.


In 2008, a rate increase of 17% was put in effect in response to reduced water usage due to restrictions and voluntary reductions because of drought conditions. In the August 2008 OWASA newsletter, a commitment was made to “continue to aggressively pursue efficiency and savings opportunities as we adapt to our changing environment.” In 2009 a further 9.75% increase is being forced upon the public ostensibly for similar reasons (not due to drought but now supposedly by economic conditions). Water rates have increased by 27% over the past 2 years and OWASA predicts a further 19.50% increase over the course of 2010 and 2011. By 2011 water rates will have increased by almost 50% in just 4 years during a period of low or non-existent inflation and slow growth conditions. I do not see this as adaptation to a changing environment but simply continuing with OWASA ‘business as usual” and passing the bill on to the consumer. This is an outrageous and unjustifiable rate of increase and cannot be attributed to temporary drought conditions, a poor economic environment, or major capital expansion.


The decisions made by OWASA management on past capital expenditures and inaccurate system utilization planning have placed the public in a very difficult situation. The residential customer is being asked to make-up for poor planning and the unwillingness by OWASA management to make hard decisions during trying economic times. Private business must vigorously cut costs to reduce capital expenditures and personnel levels in response to difficult economic realities and available cash flow. OWASA does not appear to be making meaningful attempts to adjust its costs to the realities of reduced capacity utilization.  They have resisted necessary cut-backs in staffing and salaries, deferral or cancellation of non-vital capital expenditures, and other means for cost reduction (such as seeking alternatives or renegotiation of an exorbitant increase in treatment chemical costs during a period of stable or falling commodity prices and a weak economic environment).


As a monopoly, OWASA is in a position of forcing continuous and unsustainable rate increases upon its customer base without risk of customer defections. As residential consumers, our only option is to attempt to further reduce our usage of water as rates spiral upward. Of course, reduction in usage is rewarded with even higher rates for a lower level of service. This is an unfair and unjust situation.


In conclusion, as a long time resident of Chapel Hill and customer of OWASA, I am asking that serious consideration be given to the unsustainable burden being placed upon the public due to poor management practices and inaccurate capacity planning. I am demanding that OWASA be held to some accountability in its roll as a public utility and holder of a vital service monopoly. The public cannot sustain continued annual rate increases averaging in double digits. Residents of modest economic means and fixed incomes are being driven out of our community or put in an untenable position, and our public water utility should not be such an egregious contributor to these burdens.

in staffing & infrastructure maintenance.I think what we are witnessing is the realization that water has a higher value than we thought and, consequently, a higher cost. If you research the options available to us, conservation and raising rates now is the least-cost option. It's not cheap, but it's the least-cost. We are now running up against the limits of our carrying capacity and the game has changed.

If you would like to see how OWASA rates compare to other utilities across North Carolina, go to:'Residential Water Structure'!A2A quick summary of the 2009 water data :

  • the average system serves 20,909 customers
  • the average monthly cost for use of 3,000 gallons of water is $18.75; for 5,000 gallons of water it's $25.81; for 15,000 gallons it's $63.55
  • OWASA serves 75,000 customers. The cost for 3,000 gallons of water is $21.53; 5,000 gallons is $31.97; 15,000 gallons is $108.76

A quick summary of the 2009 sewer data : 

  • the average system serves 20,909 customers '
  • the average monthly cost for use of 3,000 gallons of wastewater is $22.26;
    for 5,000 gallons it's $31.07; for 15,000 gallons it's $77.21
  • OWASA serves 75,000 customers. The cost for 3,000 gallons of wastewater is
    $25.68; 5,000 gallons is $36.26; 15,000 gallons is $89.16

The summary from the last OWASA BOD meeting contains this point:"OWASA should buy
water from other utilities before putting into effect the additional water
conservation requirements that apply in formally-declared water shortages. The
capacity to transfer water to the OWASA system from the Town of Cary via the
City of Durham’s system will substantially increase when improvements to
the Cary-Durham connection are completed later this year."So in addition to participating in increasing the transport options from Jordan, we're also going to water from surrounding communities instead of instituting more constrictive conservation controls? This just doesn't sound like the OWASA I'm used to.

Our state has struggled with water demands over the last several years.  One way everyone can be helped is through sharing of water.  Jordan Lake has water, several communities (including us) have a need for water.  While it might not be 100% necessary for us to pursue this connection, it IS the responsible thing to do for the entire area to meet the demands of growth. How many of those new Chatham Co folks work at UNC?  The "questionable planning" epiteth could just as easily be leveled against CH when we refuse to support job creation with adequately diverse housing thus forcing sprawl. 

Why should OWASA customers, who have done such a good job of conserving, have to partner with other jurisdictions who have not done a good job of conserving & who have apparently figured that they would just get more supply from somewhere else?

North Carolina has doubled its population over the last 45 years.  Yet there is zero additional water coming in.  It is not responsible for us to opt-out of this state-wide problem.

How do you come to that conclusion?During the 01-02 drought OWASA customers stepped up to the plate and responded by conserving and have continued to conserve. We use less water today then before the 02 drought and our population has grown.We need to maintain clean healthy water for our customers. We need to maintain clean watersheds. We need to continue purchasing land surrounding the watersheds to control growth. We need to continue owning our utility and not be driven by forces outside our service area.We should not go to Jordan Lake for water, nor should we sell water the Chatham unless both live up to OWASA's standards. And they do not. 

We have caused their population growth?  How do you come to that conclusion?Well, here's a simple answer: tremendous employment growth in the last decade-plus by the town's 4 largest employers (UNC, UNC Hospitals, CH/C Schools, BCBS), with a decided lack of desired affordable housing . . . i.e. single-family dwellings, starter homes, in the $150-$225K price point, without an obscene residential tax burden, on a decent piece of land where the kids can play in the yard.  That property does not exist in Chapel Hill.  It does exist in Chatham County and Durham (and Hillsborough, Mebane, Efland, Morrisville, etc.).  When new homes of the type described above are demanded, the developer looks to Chatham, Durham, or Northern Orange because of a) a decidedly cheaper price for the acreage and b) the ability to avoid what can best be described as a challenging and arduous approval process with Town Council and planning staff and the public hearing for town comments.That's merely one reason why.

They did not plan well, That's the bottom line. If they needed water they shold have initiated this process before they gave the go-ahead to growth. Seems like an obvious conservative approach. Don't try to eat more than you can lift.  

I personally don't think Orange County should be held in such high "planning" regard Mark. Like Chris says, we've put policies in place that control, to some measure, growth within our own boundaries, but those policies have had negative consequences on our neighbors. Using Chatham as an example, it's been bombarded on the north by Orange and on the east by Wake. The voters weren't prepared, nor was their planning staff. I don't think we can hold them wholly responsible for that. The growth at UNC had never affected them in the past--how would they know that the first few new developments were a permanent trend rather than a fluke? Granted county elected officials got $$$ in their eyes as that growth continued, but the voters did realize the problem and removed them, just not quickly enough to avoid their current problems. Since Orange Co is at least partially responsible for those problems, I feel like we need to be good neighbors and take part of the burden of fixing those problems. I'd rather see us help with Jordan Lake than try and take water from the Haw, especially since OWASA has decided to adopt a policy of buying water from neighbors before instituting nuclear conservation policies.    

Everybody knows that population explosions are caused by water.  "Must be something in the water."    

that run the the state will cause us all sorts of problems locally. The corporate interests would have a field day if water was centrally governed.

This disucssion about our water and whether OWASA should release some Jordan allocation to Chatham reminds me of a CH issue several years ago.The adage "Poor planning on your part does not make a crisis on ours" is relevant to both issues.The CH-Carr school system needed a new high school, preferably on the south side of the towns.  The system needed the high school fast and had not planned well enough to own a site.  Every local government knows that when it plans a major facility, it must have the site well in advance, but somehow the school system didn't get that memo. The school system came to CH council and asked to use the land that the town had bought years earlier for the then future southern park, a 60-acre site.Schools (and parents) argument:  We need a high school badly, and right now.  Both current high schools are on the north side, and we need one on the south side.  We'll cooperate, we'll share the land.Town agument:  Both major parks are on the north side as well.  We need one on the south side.  We planned for this for years and are about to start to design the park.  We've promised a park to people on the south side.Interersting notes that swung my opinion:  Steve Scroggs (assistant superindent for facilites) said that we will build an "urban high school".  That'll take less land, so the town can have a park on the site.  Jim Ward asked Steve what an urban HS requires, and Steve replies, about 37 acres, all flat and buildable.  Cal Horton recommends against sellinging the land to the schools, stating that it really isn't possible to share park facilities with a HS because the HS needs the facilities almost all the hours.Parents mad at town council.  "My kids will have to go from southern CH to way up north everyday, either on bus or I'll have to drive them".The parents anger is justified but misdirected.  It wasn't the town that planned poorly, it was the school system.Result: the council voted not to sell the land to the schools, with the result that Carrboro HS was eventually built, though a year and likely some money was lost.All this applies in spades to OWASA's issue with Chatham.  I come down on the side of OWASA here.  They planned well, and should not face a crisis because of Chatham's lack of foresight. 

No matter where people come down on the debate, these developments will bear watching.  Do not assume that all important factors are on the table.  Such factors include the state laws and regulations that affect what Authorities can do.  This can be looked up, easily, on state web sites. I would think that Authorities such as OWASA are formed in order to maximize resources for the members of the Authority, and make decisions accordingly.  OWASA Board members should look this stuff up on the internet and not rely on staff interpretations, but who has time?  At least they should get the staff to print out for them the state laws and regulations governing authorities.  I'll bet nobody at OWASA has looked at that for a long time.To the extent that connections to other utilities can help during a drought, such things would appear OK.  To have actual sharing of water for the long term gets into important aspects of the laws and regulations, including those affecting Authorities.  I'd be checking with the Insitute of Government on this one.  They ought to be able to quickly assess where things are and where they need to stay or go.


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