trade ya water for a completed outer belt loop

Raleigh has no savior in drought
David Bracken
(Raleigh) News & Observer
When it comes to buying water, Raleigh might as well be an island.

The city lacks both the connections and agreements that Gov. Mike Easley and other state water managers say are essential to surviving the drought.

Raleigh has just one emergency water agreement -- with hard-pressed Durham -- the same number the capital city had before the drought began in May. Raleigh suddenly finds itself a buyer in a market where it's always been a seller.

"The irony is we have an emergency agreement between ourselves and Durham, but we don't have the infrastructure," said Dale Crisp, the city's public utilities director.

Durham's is perhaps the one Triangle water system with less water than Raleigh's, and it couldn't sell water to the Capital City even if the pipes were in place to do so.

More than a month ago, Easley spoke to Crisp and managers from 29 other water systems hit hardest by the drought at a workshop in Greensboro. The governor said their first priority should be to establish emergency interconnections with neighboring water systems that could be tapped this summer as a last resort.

"Get connected now," Easley said.

Ten months into the drought, Raleigh appears particularly isolated compared to its neighbors to the west. The Orange Water and Sewer Authority, Durham, Chatham County and Hillsborough can all send and receive a million or more gallons of water a day to each other.

John Greene, OWASA general manager of operations, said the connections are like a wheel.

"You start with a hub and then follow the spokes out," Greene said. "You keep adding players, depending on how the distribution area changes."

Vicki Westbrook, Durham's deputy water manager, said Durham has pushed up the construction of a second connection to Cary, which should be completed this summer. Durham buys about 2 million gallons a day from Cary.

Durham's long-term plan also calls for two connections to Raleigh, but those are not under way.

Raleigh hopes to complete its engineering review and begin negotiating an emergency purchase agreement with Cary by March 1. Cary draws from Jordan Lake and is the one neighbor that may be capable of selling the city significant amounts of water.

Changing the flow

The absence of emergency connections is another sign that Raleigh has historically never needed water. Though the city has connections with Cary, Holly Springs and Johnston County, water can flow only from Raleigh.

Crisp said making those connections two-way is not just a matter of turning the meter around and flipping a switch.

Raleigh has to pump water up to Cary because it is at a higher elevation than the point in West Raleigh where the systems are connected. Reversing the flow would require a control valve to ensure that water pressure in both systems is not affected.

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said it's unrealistic to expect the Cary connection to supply anywhere near the roughly 40 million gallons a day the city currently consumes.

"The thought would be two to five million gallons depending on Cary's capacity and approval from [the state]," he said.

Any transfer of more than 2 million gallons of water from Cary to Raleigh would be considered an "inter-basin transfer," and thus require approval from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Easley said last month that the state would expedite the inter-basin transfer permitting process during the drought.

It pays to have friends

Raleigh learned firsthand the value of being interconnected last week when the town of Holly Springs agreed to stop buying 300,000 gallons of water a day from the city. Holly Springs now gets all its water from Harnett County, which draws from the much-larger Cape Fear River.

Fuquay-Varina, another Wake town with a water connection to Raleigh, also now purchases almost all of its water from Harnett County.

Johnston County can purchase water from at least a half dozen other systems, and engineers are currently finishing a new connection with Wilson County.

Tim Broome, the county's director of infrastructure, estimated those connections add up to about two-thirds of the 10 million gallons a day the county typically uses.

"You can never have enough friends in this business," Broome said.

(Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.)