With about 7,000 housing units approved but as yet unbuilt in Chatham, our county board of commissioners is grappling with the problem of providing enough water for new residents. The first thought was to upgrade the current water treatment plant on the east side of Jordan Lake with about $30 million dollars already set aside for the project. But with other municipalities in the region facing similar challenges, the idea of building a regional water treatment plant on the west side of the lake that would serve several cooperating partners has started to get some play. With David Hughes, Chatham County Public Works Director, and John Morris of the state Division of Water Resources taking the lead, earnest negotiations should begin within the next few months, according to Hughes.

Jordan Lake has a designated water supply of 15 billion gallons. David Hughes told me that the “safe yield” of the lake is about 100 million gallons per day. Sixty-three million gallons is already allocated. That leaves just 37 million gallons to be divided up between either competing or cooperating partners. Chatham County currently uses 6 million gallons of water per day. With this plan, the county is hoping to procure rights to an additional 9 mg/d that should see us through until about 2050. 

At this point, nobody seems to know what the whole thing would cost, but one thing is clear to prospective partners Durham, Chatham, Pittsboro, Chapel Hill, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Carrboro: it’ll be a lot cheaper to build cooperatively than if it’s every entity for itself. But of course, you know it won’t be a simple process. As neighbors in the region get wind of talk about divvying up Jordan’s remaining capacity, watch for Greensboro and Fayetteville to also make requests. 

As Hughes told me, “It’s not unusual for everybody and his brother” to want to get into the negotiations when water is being allocated. 

Hesitancy on the part of some of the prospective partners is already evident. Apprehensions already exist about what kind of growth we will have in the area as we make plans for our long-term water use. Mayor of Carrboro, Mark Chilton, is concerned with the proliferation of low density living where water sucking, sprawling lawns predominate. He wants to see a strong regional commitment to sustainable water use. “Jordan is the last reservoir of it’s kind in North Carolina. Let’s not use it all up and then talk about conservation. That’s what we’ve done in the past. Water is the limit to growth, not just for the Triangle but for the U. S.” 

Senior Pittsboro Town Board member, Gene Brooks, is ready to listen to proposals, but wants to safeguard Pittsboro’s position in future negotiations. “I would assume that you would want to be very careful so that you could retain autonomy. Some times in these ventures the smaller members don’t have much say. I would want to know more about the proposal. But that being said we shouldn’t miss the golden opportunity to work with regional partners on such an issue.” 

Pittsboro is in a difficult position. The town draws it’s water from the Haw River, not the best of water sources. Pittsboro water has persistently violated the law with high levels of trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen. The town is working feverishly to avoid a $30,000 fine levied by the state of North Carolina for these violations. A cooperative water treatment venture would serve the town in two important ways: better water quality for less money. 

I would echo Mayor Chilton’s concern. The 37 million gallons yet to be allocated from Lake Jordan may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Especially when climate change will very likely bring hotter, dryer conditions to the Piedmont. Smart conservation techniques must be at the forefront of this proposal or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s stay under our allowable water budget and have some in reserve for a not-so-rainy day. 

Chatham County Commissioner George Lucier is hoping to meet with Goldston, Siler City and Pittsboro soon to begin inter-county negotiations for the new water treatment plant. Lucier maintains that Chatham doesn’t need four existing water treatment plants and would do better to throw in with this cooperative undertaking. 

The wise conservation of our water resources will be a true test of the collective mettle of our regional leadership. Success in this endeavor will pave the way for greater cooperation on other important issues like transportation, commerce, air quality and land use policy. Cooperative, cohesive communities gain a reputation of trustworthiness, stability and reliability. These attributes will position our Piedmont neighborhood in good stead when it comes to making choices about development. We will be able to choose the best industries that fit our locale. We’ll have the clout and resources to build sustainable communities that model the best of what North Carolina has to offer.