On Going to Jordan

[At the March 1, 2011, meeting of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, in response to a request from the OWASA Board of Directors to facilitate greater access to water from Jordan Lake, Mayor Mark Chilton made the following remarks. The Editors of OP asked if we could publish his comments here as a blog post, and he agreed. -Ed.] 

What the evidence that was just laid out before you clearly shows is that our community is capable of living with the water supply we have now, that the water supply now is very substantial, is scheduled to grow significantly in 2035, and that water conservation efforts have proved to be more effective than—I think they've really proved to be more effective than anybody would have guessed 10 years ago, than the most wild-eyed optimists would have believed 10 years ago. We've been more successful than that. We have not even exhausted the water conservation and water efficiency technologies and policies and procedures that even possibly could be implemented within our community.

When I first moved here in 1988, our community was still at that time reeling and dealing with a very difficult decision that our whole county had to make surrounding the creation of the Cane Creek Reservoir. The purpose of the reservoir was to provide the absolute highest-quality water that could be had for the people of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and some of the surrounding area. It came at the expense of, to some degree, of the rights of landowners in the area. There were people who were forced to sell their land, land that had been in their family for hundreds of years. That wasn't an easy decision for anybody to arrive at. But the reality is that our OWASA board and the Chapel Hill Town Council and this board and the Board of County Commissioners of Orange County ultimately recognized that it was worth it, that as much of a burden as we were putting on a relatively few people who lived in the Cane Creek watershed, that that burden was worth it to insure that Chapel Hill and Carrboro would have, for far distant time into the future, the absolutely most pristine sort of water we could have. And they did that for us. They made really tough decisions, and I appreciate that, and I value that.

I think the evidence is that we don't need Jordan Lake water. I understand some people would feel more comfortable knowing that it would be possible to get Jordan Lake water in the future. But here's the thing. The quality of the water that goes into Jordan Lake is considerably lower. The water in Jordan Lake washes off the streets of Burlington, it washes off the streets of Greensboro and Graham and Pittsboro and any of several dozen other cities and towns in its upper watershed. The areas it washes through includes numerous EPA-identified Superfund sites. It includes all sorts of underground storage tanks that leak contaminants into the water table. It includes parking lots from here to Wake Forest University, practically. It includes a lot of area, and it includes a lot of sources of pollution, and those pollutants are picked up by rainwater that washes across the streets, filters through the ground; and where those pollutants ultimately end up is in Jordan Lake.

Now, these guys can tell you and show you the numbers that suggest that the water in Jordan Lake is not necessarily that bad. It's not bad compared with the kind of water that most of the United States drinks. It's not bad compared with the water that most of North Carolina drinks. But here's the thing. We don't know in the long run what the quality of water in Jordan Lake will be. Jordan Lake is not finished being polluted by the sources of pollution that lie upstream of it. Jordan Lake's watershed will continue to be built out. The failure of the state government to adopt strict standards to protect Jordan Lake over the last several years was driven primarily by one thing, and that was the desire of home builders and realtors to build the hell out of Greensboro, Burlington, and all points upstream from Jordan Lake. They stopped those rules from going in the way that they had been recommended by scientists. And the reason they did it is because they do not care about the quality of the water that comes out of Jordan Lake.

What I'm saying is, we don't have to go to Jordan Lake, we don't need Jordan Lake, and we really shouldn't want Jordan Lake—and I am not going to support going to Jordan Lake. 

I realize that there's the possibility of emergencies in the future. There's the possibility of droughts beyond anything we've yet experienced. And yet we have in place some agreements and a set of policies that address those questions, that will allow us to buy water if need be from our neighbors in Durham or potentially other jurisdictions, if that's what it really comes down to. But for me, except in those circumstances, I don't want to drink Jordan Lake. 

[Note from Mark: The above passage is a transcript of my extemporaneous comments.  Please forgive any lapses of grammar and the absence of supporting statistics.  The stats do exist and do support what I said above, but I did not have them handy at the time I was speaking.] 



Mark was quite impassioned when he made this speech. It's great that we have community leaders who care so much about the future of the community. However, I would like to clarify a couple of points, based on my understanding of the situation. I represent myself here and not OWASA.In the past 10 years, this community has experienced two severe droughts; droughts in which OWASA initiated plans to lay pipe from Cane Creek reservoir to the Haw River. Climate change is a reality, and one of the effects of climate change is more frequent and more severe droughts. We need to face this reality and plan for it. With that fact in mind, we need a solid plan for emergency water supplies, if they are needed.  Mark is correct that OWASA has mutual aid agreements in place with Durham and Cary.  But those agreements are based on "if available." Neither town is obligated to sell us water; the agreements simply say we will all help each other when we can. In both of the recent droughts, Durham was in worse shape that we were, so depending on them doesn't give me much confidence. And if they did agree to sell to us, how much would they sell and at what cost? The water would still come from Jordan Lake. Why would we want to depend on our neighbors' good will when we can have absolutely certainty of getting the water we need?Let's say we don't get the Jordan Lake allocation. What are the other choices for emergency supplies? Conservation can make up some of the shortage, but not nearly enough. OWASA customers have cut their household consumption significantly over the past 10 years, and as a community we should be extremely proud. Based on research I did when I was with the UNC Sustainability Office, I think we still have opportunity for future conservation savings due to new technologies, but those technologies do not yet exist. At this point in time, savings would have to come through behavioral changes, and  I don't believe those are going to be sufficient to eliminate our need for emergency supplies at this time. So that leaves us with the Haw River as our fallback option. At the point where OWASA would have intake, Graham is releasing its wastewater effluent just upstream. The Little Alamance is flowing into the Haw at that point, and it's bringing Burlington's effluent. And there's a medical waste incinerator on the banks of the Haw at Graham, picking up ash and heated wastewater. The final process in any wastewater treatment process is dispersion by joining larger water bodies or over miles of uninterrupted flows. Since flow rates for rivers slow down drastically during droughts, the dispersion for Graham and Burlington WWTP is going to be hampered significantly. I personally would much prefer to drink water from Jordan than from the Haw at anytime, but especially during times of drought. This is not an easy topic to discuss. My personal beliefs are that we need to live within our local ecological footprint. I also believe that water shortages are going to become more and more common across the world, and that southern Orange County cannot depend on being immune to this risk between now and 2035 when the Rock Quarry comes online. Water is like air; we have to have it. But while we need a backup supply, we should also put tight controls on when that supply can be used. I hope our community can have an informed and civil conversation about this issue. I appreciate Mark sharing his thoughts and feelings, and I hope my response is helpful to those who want to know another side.

Thanks to Mark Chilton and Terri Buckner for their comments. Mark's history is important - especially noting the sacrifice a few had to make for the rest of us years ago when Jordan Lake was first conceived. I was in graduate school then and as I recall, local environmentalists were against the project while the Army Corps of Engineers was behind it. Lots of surprising things have happened in the interim: eagles have started nesting in around the lake and residents are conserving more than anyone would have guessed. That said, Terri's position seems reasonable. It would be nice to never have to go to Jordan Lake for water, but having it as a backup seems prudent.

I don't disagree that Jordan Lake makes a reasonable emergency (i.e. drought) plan, but from what I see, at least some in our community (not Terri) are advocating for a lot more than just emergency access to Jordan Lake.  And that's what I am concerned about.If our growth plans called for our community to grow more/faster then we would have to tap into Jordan Lake, but projected growth at present makes it unlikely that we would ever need anything more than emergency access to Jordan Lake.  In 2035 the American Stone quarry on Hwy 54 West will close and OWASA has a deal with the quarry under which OWASA will get the empty gravel pit to use for further water storage capacity.  That means that in 24 years our community will have some significant further growth potential (i.e. beyond what current plans contemplate).  In the meantime, we can and should use conservation, efficiency and controlled growth to ensure that we won't routinely need to access Jordan Lake.To be clear, my view is at odds with the position of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce's officially adopted position.  I take it that their perspective is that the more water we have access to, the more growth potential our community has.  And that logic is sound, I reckon.  But the question is whether that level of growth is really what our community wants or needs.Bear in mind that OWASA's own projections about future water demand in our community already include 5 story downtown redevelopment in Carrboro, 9 story buildings in downtown Chapel Hill, Carolina North, expansion near the Friday Center, Carrboro's Northern Small Area Plan and numerous other adopted growth plans for Chapel Hill, UNC and Carrboro.  In other words, we can accomodate all of that growth WITHOUT Jordan Lake (except perhaps in very severe droughts).  With Jordan Lake as a routine part of our water supply, we could accomodate even more growth than anything currently planned.  But I don't hear very many voters say that our growth plans are too modest.  Indeed I hear a lot of people say exactly the opposite - that Greenbridge is too tall - that East 54 is too dense - that we don't need a new drug store - that this new development or that new development is bad etc. etc. etc.I think the scale of our current growth plans map out a healthy middle road between the growth/no-growth perspectives.  Carrboro and Chapel Hill are currently planning for the kind of growth that will produce adequate pedestrian/bike-friendly density to serve our area with light rail (and expanded bus service) without routinely drinking Jordan Lake.  Given that there are many who think that even the current scale of growth is questionable, I don't see how it makes practical, potitical, or environmental sense to pursue using Jordan Lake as a regular part of our water supply.

I don't disagree with the directon of your comments and don't really have an opinion on the question at hand, but I am concerned about 2 things:1) UNC growth (in all its forms) drives demand for community growth.  If the housing growth isn't in CH/C, it is out in Alamance or Durham or Wake or Chatham.  I agree with you that we have a mid-growth plan, but am concerned that demand will continue to outpace that and I hate the idea of all those people driving in from 20 miles away every day (for many reasons including: environmental impact of the driving, lack of community engagement by people who live so far from work, reduction in diversity of CH/C population).  If CH/C can only support x people, how do we keep UNC from driving demand for y people to live here?2)  Whether because of climate change or whatever, I'm concerned about inflow levels into our current reserviors.  OWASA no longer publishes the trend info which shows how our lake levels have rebounded over the years, but it seems like we've been seeing greater fluctuation in the last couple of years.  It seems like we are seeing much less time at 100% capacity, with deeper dips.  But, as I said, they aren't publishing the same historical data they used to, so it is hard to verify. Having emergency capacity seems even more important in that environment.Thanks for staying on top of this with a voice of reason and thoughtfulness.  And thanks for sharing your thoughts on OP so we can hear more depth from elected officials.  You are a fine example for all of our leaders to strive for.

of the big picture, including historical context, and his willingness to engage on the OP forum, especially given that he is an elected official. It sounds like I agree with his position. I would like to see Jordan Lake available as an emergency source, but that's all. Also, if OWASA has the ability to tap it, then I would imagine that when it comes to long-term planning for Jordan Lake, OWASA or whatever governmental entities are represented, would have a place at the table. So while it would not give a lot of control, it would provide some potential opportunity to influence policy. Mark's thoughtful reponse to my query speaks to a fundamental strategy that I've always wondered about and it's this: My sense is that for years and years people who are anti-growth have pursued that vision by making permitting convoluted - difficult, time-consuming, expensive - instead of legislating for it in a direct manner, say, through zoning. The problem with this is that development of any sort whatsoever has become, in my opinion, prohibitively expensive. This has brought unintended consequences in my opinion, the saddest is that it is almost prohibitively expensive to create "affordable" housing in this area so we have to make developpers pepper it into luxury developments. To bring this back to Jordan Lake, could the way forward for our communities be to write specific zoning laws to address controlled growth? And then to stipulate that OWASA would only go to Jordan Lake as a last resort?I've probably confused the issue here so if OP editors want to start another thread, please do so. Again, Mark and James, I appreciate how you both are willing to engage.

Regarding the conservation part -- how much has water consumption gone down over the last few years?

Geoff, when I was on the OWASA board I voted to invest a lot of money for the water treatment upgrade. We were told that buy now consumption would be at 14 MGD. I voted with the idea that we would be able to expand to 18 MGD. Yesterday we used roughly 7 MGD.  http://www.owasa.org/WaterWatch/Default.aspx 

The best estimate we have at this time is about a 22% reduction in gallons consumed per day since 2002. What's really amazing to me is that we asked people to conserve during the droughts and they do and then they don't go back to consuming more once the drought ends. It says a lot for the citizens of this community.

Thanks Terri. Is that gallons per person per day (i.e. taking into account population growth), or is that total gallons?Relatedly, and sorry for going somewhat off topic here, one thing Duke Energy does which is at least somewhat effective is show you how your energy use compares to average residential energy use. Does OWASA provide any comparative information of that kind? I know my household uses between 3,000 and 6,000 gallons per month, but I have no idea if that's a lot or a little.


Gallons per person per day. 

One thing that’s bothered me about the discussion of the Jordan Lake Allocation is the sense coming from OWASA that it’s now or never, that if we don’t receive a Level I allocation in this round we may not have access to the water if an emergency arrives. The question had not been asked as to what happens if you have a Level II allocation and encounter some emergency that requires more immediate access to the water.

Therefore, today I called Tom Fransen at the Division of Water Quality to get an answer to this question. Fransen told me that conversion of “all or a portion” of a Level II allocation to Level I is “quick and painless”. It requires a letter of request to DWR who passes it on to the Environmental Management Commission where it is treated as little more than a formality.

Given that OWASA’s water supply projections do not come close to justifying the need for Jordan Lake water in the next five years (as required for a Level I allocation) and given that our existing Level II allocation can be readily converted to Level I in an emergency, it seems that this entire brouhaha may be kind of pointless: we can retain our Level II allocation with confidence that the water will be available in the case of an emergency. In addition, Level I access comes with a cost of $250,000 (that’s real money here in Carrboro). In the current economy, it makes sense to put off that expense as long as possible.

It also staes in the allocation rules that level 1 allocation is for utilities that will draw water from Jordan within 5 years. My concen is that OWASA is now saying that they will not use JL until we are in a level 1 drought. So if we don't get to a level 1 in the next 5 years, which can happen, OWASA will be required by a level 1 allocation to draw water. Therefore, the compromise they are presenting is null and void, they will have to draw the water.I just want to make it clear, I am not saying that we should not have JL in case of an emergency, we have always had JL in our plan for emergency b/u. Been paying for that rite for years.  But that is all it should be, IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY...

If all that is needed to get to a Level I allocation is a phone call to DWR, why do they have an extended application process (2 years or more)? I'll check further on this, but the questions that come to mind in response to Dan's post are 1) if we waited to pursue this allocation until the next drought has set in, how long would it take to get approval to draw the water? 2) What size allocation would we get and would it be sufficient to meet our community need? Also, If we wait until there is an emergency need, then others will have already made arrangements with Cary for delivery. Will Cary still have sufficient resources to respond to our unplanned for emergency needs?  Personally, I feel like emergency planning should be done in advance of the need. We plan for transit needs years in advance. Our emergency service departments run training sessions to be prepared in advance. We build schools in advance of overcrowding. Yes, $240,000 is a large investment, but waiting until the last minute to ensure an adequate water supply seems a little irresponsible to me. Isn't water as important as transit? As for using the allocation within 5 years, we don't know how much would have to be used and we don't know what constitutes use (for example, could we use it to help out a neighbor?) All of these details will be worked out during the application process. But we have to get to the application first. Before we can apply, we need the boundary service agreement to amended. Orange County and Hillsborough have agreed to the amendment; Chapel Hill and Carrboro haven't.

At its December 8 regular business meeting, the OWASA Board of Directors received a presentation from Tom Fransen, deputy director of the North Carolina Division of Water Resources. As well as providing information about the history, regulation, and operation of the Jordan Lake reservoir, Fransen's presentation and the subsequent question-and-answer period confirmed a couple of important points.First, Fransen confirmed Alderman Dan Coleman's report that moving to a Jordan Lake level I allocation is a straightforward process. Specifically, when a holder of a level II allocation (such as OWASA) has an immediate need, change to a level I allocation is a "very painless process." The relevant regulation states, "When holders of Level II allocations have documented an immediate need and wish to commence withdrawals within five years, their Level II allocations will be changed to Level I upon review and approval by the [Environmental Management Commission]" (15A NCAC 02G .0504(f)). Second, acquisition of a Jordan Lake level I allocation is based on an intent to withdraw water from Jordan Lake within 5 years: "The [Environmental Management Commission] will assign Level I allocations of Jordan Lake water supply storage based on an intent to begin withdrawing water within five years of the effective date of allocation..."(15 NCAC 02G .0504(b)). It remains to be seen whether Fransen's presentation will influence OWASA's insistence on amending the WSMPBA to allow greater access to Jordan Lake water. Changing to a level I allocation would be costly (approximately $240,000), and OWASA still has not shown that its own long-term water supply projections indicate a need to withdraw water from Jordan Lake in the next 5 years. A transcript of Fransen's presentation is available here. Also present at the meeting were Carrboro aldermen Dan Coleman and Sammy Slade and Chapel Hill council members Penny Rich and Jim Ward.

Mr. Fransen did state that IN THE PAST moving to a Level I allocation has been straightforward. However, he clearly pointed out that the decision is made by an appointed group (EMC) and that as the membership of that body changes, so might their practices. He also informed us that there is greater demand for water from Jordan than there has been in the past. The other factor to consider here is that OWASA is only interested in Jordan water as part of our drought management plan. If we need water due to drought, so will others, some of whom may not already have a Level I allocation. The impression I left that meeting with is that relying on getting water in the event of a drought, a drought serious enough for OWASA to need backup, would be gambling. As for drawing water from Jordan Lake within 5 years, Mr. Fransen stated that in his opinion (again, he doesn't make the decisions) using Jordan as a reservoir backup as part of our drought management plan would constitute use. However, we did not get a clear definition of what constitutes "use" because that decision is made by the EMC.

Fransen made it pretty clear that "use" means "withdrawal":

MR. FRANSEN: ...If you really look at the way the rules are written, that they don't use the term "use." They talk about withdrawing water. So I guess in the context of Level 1 and 2, you're really talking about a withdrawal of water....MR. RAYMON (sic): "So to be clear, when we've been talking about "use," the real meaning is withdraw water in five years?MR. FRANSEN: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Relevant excerpts from the rules to which he referred:

Level I allocations are for applicants which have demonstrated an immediate need and will commence withdrawals within five years of the effective date of allocation...

Level I allocations will be reviewed for possible reassignment if the recipient does not begin to withdraw water within five years of the effective date of allocation or is not using and withdrawing the water as proposed in the application.

When Fransen described the inclusion of a Jordan Lake level I allocation as part of an overall drought mitigation plan (which he thought could be justified to the EMC), he was differentiating that scenario from a scenario in which the water would be withdrawn only as a last resort in a case of emergency.For example, on page 26 of the transcript:

MR. FRANSEN: ...if it's really just an emergency, we're probably not talking about a Jordan allocation. If you're talking about it in terms of how you manage drought, how you mitigate your supplies to minimize your risk of running out of water and it's part of that strategy, then I think there's a role for an allocation.

Later, in response to a question from Jim Ward:

MR. FRANSEN:  What I was trying to address with that is the difference between part of your drought plan to minimize your risk of your existing reservoirs and other sources of being totally depleted, versus an emergency, you're basically at the edge of depletion, so it--we're just not--we're going to get right to the edge and then not use Jordan Lake until it's a true dire emergency.If it's really part of an overall risk management, if it's part of your strategy to balance the need not to have your citizens go into conservation every year, you know, mandatory conservation every year, versus something, you know, less frequent that's kind of in line with other folks, that's where I was coming from.Trying to draw a distinction between, how do you really incorporated it into the overall balance of everything versus we just--we want it as an insur--real insurance policy and just use it as a measure of last resort.

Fransen's responses suggest to me that, if OWASA's interest is in meeting emergency needs, a level I allocation from Jordan Lake is not the appropriate mechanism.

It doesn't take a very close reading to notice the internal inconsistencies coming from Mr. Fransen. So I guess that means that anyone who is interested or involved will have to make their own decisions about what to believe and what to question. For me, the decision will go back to the ultimate purpose in requesting the Level I allocation--as a backup water supply for those years when we have serious drought. We've had two such years since 2001 and if the climatologists are correct, we should expect to see more frequent and more severe droughts in the future. But that is speculation since we have only 2 data points at this time. However, the fall out from those 2 data points was plans for laying water pipes from Cane Creek reservoir over to the Haw River as the temporary backup, despite the outstanding efforts of the community at conservation. At a cost of over $1million and the water quality/quantity issues, I described in an earlier post, I don't see this as a sustainable or responsible approach to planning when we have the Level I option available to us. There is no guarantee that an application will be accepted. And there is no guarantee that if we get it that we will actually use it. But I cannot for the life of me seeing why anyone would question whether or not we should submit the application. 


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