Water demand in Raleigh could outstrip supply by 2040, according to the state.
Which means now is the time to plan, said Tom Reeder, director at the NC Division of Water Resources.
“That gives the City of Raleigh 30 years to plan,” Reeder said.
The city is looking at everything from replacing leaky pipes and promoting water conservation to building a new reservoir to address the shortfall. No matter what solution or combination of solutions city officials choose, most will mean higher water bills in the years to come.
The latest data shows the City’s available supply to be 132 million gallons of water each day. City water customers are only using 77 million gallons per day.
Reeder told a collection of community leaders at a conference on water two weeks ago that this puts Raleigh in a great position to sensibly plan for future growth.
A Bit of Background
This isn’t the first time Raleigh officials have examined our water use. The severity of the drought in 2007 prompted many city leaders to find new ways to expand Raleigh’s water resources.
The D.E. Benton Water Treatment Plant opened in 2010. It provides an additional 20 million gallons of water a day from both the Lake Benson 500-acre reservoir and the Lake Wheeler 650-acre reservoir. The $97.5 million project supplements water treated at the E.M. Johnson water treatment plant at Falls Lake.
This is Raleigh’s second attempt to provide drinking water from Lake Benson and Wheeler. Through both lakes, the E. B. Bain plant originally supplied drinking water for Raleigh residents in the 1950s. With population increases, the plant could no longer meet demands. In 1987, the plant closed and was replaced by the Johnson plant.
Ed Buchan, environmental coordinator for the city, said Falls Lake lost 70 percent of its volume during that 2007 drought.
“That’s a bad position to be in when you only have one water source,” he said. “With this past drought we cruised through it because we had more than one water source.”
Searching for Sources
To withstand Raleigh’s continued growth, the city plans to expand the Johnson plant, which treats an average 47 million gallons of water per day. Buchan said city officials hope to increase water treatment to 120 gallons per day.
City officials are also considering construction of a new reservoir at Little River. This venture is widely debated because it would only add 13 million gallons per day to the city’s drinking water supply. Environmental agencies are alarmed over the flooding of 650 acres for such a small amount of water.
Zoning maps of the Little River Watershed. Click to view full size.
Last year, American Rivers identified Little River as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. American Rivers representatives said they believe taxpayer dollars would be better spent on water efficiency and other more cost-effective measures.
“It’s just plain not needed,” said Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Alissa Bierma. “We don’t want anyone to dehydrate; we understand the importance of providing water for growth, but this is not how to do it.”
The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation won part of this battle last December, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would not allow new drinking water reservoirs to move forward if the communities served by them did not first aggressively pursue water efficiency.
Raleigh’s utilities department will have to wait two years and research water efficiency best practices before the federal government could grant permission to move forward with the Little River Reservoir project.
Fixing the Leaks
John Carman, Raleigh utilities director, said addressing growth is long overdue. Carman said he wants to focus on the 2,300 miles of underground water pipeline, some of which dates back to World War I.
Aging infrastructure means the city will see an increase in waterline leaks, breaks and spills.
“These pipelines have a 70 to 100 year lifespan,” Carmen said.
He wants to replace old piping before it causes major problems. The estimated cost to replace the below-ground pipelines could be $8 billion to $10 billion.
City water customers could see rate increases to cover some these costs.
Finding the Money
Prior to 2003, city water customers had seen little increase in their water and sewer bill since the mid 80s, Carman said. While nice for the customer, Carman said past city councils have not been charging rates sustainable for growth and system replacements.
He believes the city’s current and future rate increases are necessary to handle big utility costs.
Bill Holman, co-chair of the Water Utility Transition Advisory Task Force, agreed the previous low utility rates have hurt residents. The task force hopes to answer the question of how to pay for these projects.
Holman said the task force believes base fees will provide more stable revenue than charging per gallon. Holman uses the 2007 drought as an example. He explains when people used less water the city received less revenue, while fixed cost remained the same.
Jeff Hughes, director with the Environmental Finance Center at UNC School of Government, said Raleigh, like other areas, will be looking into new business models to address this issue.
“Think of your phone bill. You don’t pay per minute; you pay for the package,” he said.
And as Holman said, “Pay now or pay later; later is now.