Water, water everywhere and –
Well, the water isn’t everywhere quite yet, but on Thursday, Sept. 6, three town councils – those of Oak Ridge, Stokesdale and Summerfield – met with the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to discuss whether the county’s northwestern towns and surrounding areas should get a water system. At the mass meeting, held at the Oak Ridge Town Hall, the town councilmembers and county commissioners heard the results of a much anticipated feasibility study conducted by the Timmons Group and paid for with state funds.
The meeting was a chance for the elected officials and top staff from each of the municipalities to ask questions and either voice their concerns or express their support for the controversial proposal that has some area residents excited and others worried.
At the meeting, a team of consultants from Timmons spoke on various aspects of the findings, from logistics and finance to governance and geology. According to the estimates from Timmons, if the water is provided by a system of large wells, the infrastructure would cost an estimated $52.5 million. To build the system with water purchased from Reidsville would cost about $58 million.
The Timmons Group examined several potential sources of water suppliers for the system – including the City of Winston-Salem – and concluded that the most cost effective choice would be to purchase the water from Reidsville since that city is willing to sell the water at a better price – $3 per 1,000 gallons – than Winston-Salem, which would charge nearly twice as much.
The plan proposed by Timmons calls for a 16-inch main line running along NC 150 with 12-inch lines feeding into subdivisions. It also calls for a 1 million gallon water tank to serve unincorporated Guilford County and two 750,000-gallon tanks to serve Summerfield and Oak Ridge. According to the study’s findings, Stokesdale, which already has a water system but wants to lower its water costs, could likely get by with using its current water tank, one that holds 300,000 gallons.
For the purposes of the study, Timmons assumed residences would use an average of about 200 gallons per day. Commercial sites were assumed to use 300 gallons a day per acre, while industrial sites would use 500 gallons a day per acre.
Representatives of Timmons Group, which was paid $175,000 that the State of North Carolina provided for the study, said this was just a feasibility study and stated that another study, a geophysical study of the northwest, was needed if the towns and the county decided to move forward. Timmons representatives didn’t say how much the new study would cost – though they were asked that question twice at the meeting. They did say they would provide that information at a later date.
Preliminary analysis of groundwater availability indicates there are about 750 potential areas for groundwater development with good yields. Based on the type of rock formations found and other geological factors, Timmons judged the area as favorable for drawing water. According to Timmons, wells in the county’s northwest provide water within a range of 40 to 200 gallons per minute, with at least 100 gallons a minute possible from the vast majority.
The most likely source of funding for a water system in northwest Guilford County would be charges to users and money raised through bond sales or bank loans, either of which would mean paying about 4.5 percent interest in the current financial environment. Timmons’ recommendation also called for a cost-sharing plan that requires developers to bear some of the cost when water is extended to a new development.
The North Carolina General Assembly has provided Guilford County about $3.5 million to study the water system and get it started if the county and the towns decide to take that action. That money must be spent or encumbered by June 30, 2020, or it would return to the state – though it’s possible the county and the three towns could get an extension on that deadline if needed.
After the presentation by the Timmons Group, there were a lot of concerns expressed and questions asked by the elected officials and administrators of the four local governments. One of the biggest questions from elected leaders was whether or not there would be mandatory hookup fees for residents. A lot of area residents who are happy with well water have expressed concern over that possibility.
Some Guilford County commissioners have said they are greatly opposed to mandatory hookups, but, at the meeting in Oak Ridge, Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing didn’t seem to share that opposition.
Lawing had a very good experience expanding the water system in Brunswick County – home of Oak Island – when he was county manager before coming to Guilford County six years ago. When the question of mandatory hookups came up, Lawing jumped in and said, “I’ll take a shot at that one.”
“The real answer to that is that the governing board that is established would need to make that decision,” he said. “That decision certainly hasn’t been made at this point. There’s an argument to be made that, to make a system feasible, you need to require mandatory connection at least for new construction.”
Lawing also said that certain government grants that fund water systems sometimes contain a clause that requires mandatory hookups.
He said there were two possible ways to approach the issue: The governing bodies could make that decision early on in the process or they could let the decision be made later by whatever board or authority is established to oversee the water system.
“That would be one of the crucial decisions that would be made,” Lawing said.
Summerfield Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram asked about the possibility of grants that might help cover the costs.
Skip Green, a consultant who examined financing options for the project, told Pegram that a water system of this size isn’t going to find a grant to cover the costs; however, he added, some smaller specific grants meant to promote health and safety or economic development might be available.
Green said the reason bond financing is preferred is because, “We know that’s there.”
“You don’t design and go all this way thinking [you will] obtain a grant – or even a loan – that may or may not be there several years down the road,” he added.
Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips assured the leaders of the three towns that the county was taking a long hard look at the proposed project.
“Just to be clear, the county has not taken a position,” Phillips said.
He said the commissioners were dependent on the towns for guidance in this case. He said it’s possible that either “one, two or three – or, frankly, none of the towns,” might want to move the project forward.
He added that, if all the towns did want to do so, the county would be supportive.
“However, we are not going to go it alone – that’s just not going to happen,” Phillips said.
He said the proper next step seemed to be for everyone to get a copy of the study and take a long hard look at the findings and the supporting materials.
Timmons is now putting an executive summary on its findings and will have the report in the hands of the decision makers soon.
Lawing reminded everyone that the “clock is ticking” and the system will only cost more in the future.