At the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, Dec. 15 meeting, Commissioner Justin Conrad said that, at the board’s Jan. 5, 2017 meeting, he intends to present a memorandum of understanding to kick off a feasibility study for a major water service project – one that, if successful, will transform northwest Guilford County.
Staff talks regarding the $14.5 million project to bring municipal water service to much of northwest Guilford County and southwest Rockingham County have been ramping up as well.
Recently, Guilford County Marty Lawing had discussions with Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland regarding some implications of the project and Guilford County staff and commissioners have also been engaged in discussion with elected officials and staff in Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale, as well as with officials in Rockingham County.
So far, all of the players involved in the towns are highly optimistic about the initiative that would use $14.5 million in state funds to construct the main water lines.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said this week that the project has tremendous economic development ramifications for northwest Guilford County and said the water project would be a top priority in 2017.
Phillips said, “It needs to be on the front burner.” He also said of the initiative that it would address concerns in that area about contaminated wells and potential droughts, and would also expand economic development possibilities since a water infrastructure with water supplied from Rockingham County could support larger businesses than a well and septic system.
“We’ve been trying to test the water – no pun intended,” Phillips said of those discussions.
Phillips added that, so far, everyone he had spoken to about the proposal had been very positive regarding its prospects and that there was a good deal of agreement that a water system could do a lot for the affected areas in the two counties.
Stokesdale already has a water system for some of its residents. The town buys water from Winston-Salem, but access to the water from the proposed new system could reduce the price of water in that town and lead to expanded service.
Phillips said such a major undertaking must be handled with reason and caution.
“Everyone has been very positive so far, but it’s a lot of work,” he said.
He also said that the next few months would be important ones as costs are determined by a feasibility study.
Phillips and others involved with the effort to bring municipal water to the county’s northwest said there may be some “modifications” or “tweaks” in the state’s legislation that provides the funds for the service. He did not say what those changes might be but Lawing said the legislature may be willing to make some changes that provide “more flexibility” to the counties and towns as they pursue the project.
The 2016-2017 state budget adopted this summer includes $14.5 million in funds for the project if the two counties and at least one of the three cities form a new regional water authority by June 30, 2017. That legislation states that, once the authority is formed, the funds will be transferred to it and the money must be spent by June 30, 2020 or the money reverts back to the state.
Some sources said that one possible change to that legislation may allow Rockingham County to exclude itself from the authority. The state may also extend the deadline for forming the authority. All indications are that Rockingham County wants to provide the water for northwest Guilford County; however, they may choose not to be part of a water authority that controls where the water pipes are placed in Guilford County.
Conrad said there are indications that Rockingham County does not want to be part of the water authority but instead wants to sell its water to Guilford County.
Chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners Mark Richardson said this week that Rockingham County intends to extend its lines south along US 220 to the Rockingham County line as well as east to west along NC 158.
Like Guilford County officials, Richardson said the state legislation may need to be modified so that it may not be necessary for Rockingham to join a water authority. In that case, Rockingham County’s sole part in Guilford County’s water system would be to provide the water, something Rockingham County officials seem eager to do.
“We have the extra capacity,” Richardson said.
Greensboro officials are watching with interest, and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that the city has been in “preliminary” discussions with Guilford County officials.
Greensboro Water Resources Director Steve Drew said that the city has studied the cost of providing water to areas in northern Guilford County.
“We’ve been looking at the area north of the lakes and looking at density and demand,” he said.
The city has also done some research on providing sewer services – something that may or may not be part of the northwest water infrastructure talks now underway.
“There’s good reason for Greensboro to want sewer up in areas north of the lakes,” Dew said, adding that there were environmental reasons as well as a desire to have the additional customers for the city service.
“The water is not as challenging as sewer,” Drew said.
Guilford County’s manager has some experience with water systems. Phillips pointed out that Lawing had a great deal of experience in this area, since Brunswick County, where Lawing was county manager for over a decade before he came to Guilford County about four years ago, is a county that provides water and sewer service.
Lawing said this week that Brunswick County did have a very aggressive water and sewer program during his tenure and he felt that those projects did a great deal to enhance economic development in that county. Lawing said the number of the county’s water customers grew greatly during his time there.
He said one thing that provided a very big boost in development was when sewer service was included. He said that, so far, the current talks regarding water in northwest Guilford County have centered on water distribution but sewer would also no doubt be part of the discussion in the future.
Lawing said one unusual thing regarding the proposed project is that he wasn’t aware that the money for it was placed in the state budget until after the budget was approved. Other Guilford County officials were also unaware of it until after the state budget passed.
Lawing said the first step would be a feasibility study and that he can’t think of any reason anyone would be opposed to that. He said that would shed a lot of light on the project such as the pipe sizes needed and projected costs.
Lawing said one important component was the help it would provide fire service response and that that was also a driving motivation for municipal water in the county’s northeast.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said he thinks there certainly are a lot of pluses to providing water to the northeast Guilford County but he is concerned about how the water authority is structured.
“The devil is in the details,” Branson said.
Phillips also said it’s very important how any such an authority is designed.
“It needs to be an equal partnership,” he said.