Guilford County, Rockingham County and the towns of Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale are in talks to explore the formation of a new regional water and sewer authority to implement a $14.5-million project to bring water service to northwest Guilford County and southwest Rockingham County.

The Division of Water Infrastructure of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has $14.5 million in funds available 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.

Elected officials in the towns say that providing that area with municipal water and sewer services could spur residential growth and economic development in the affected areas of the two counties that now rely on well water for residential and business uses.

Stokesdale already has a water system with water supplied by Winston-Salem. However, the new water authority, if formed, could play a role in helping that town manage its existing water operations and could mean an expansion of it or lower water prices for that town.

Several of those involved in the discussions said there would be big benefits from a water system if the feasibility study – the first step in the process – shows the project to be a viable one.

Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad said he was approached by Rockingham County officials regarding the project and Conrad said he would be bringing a memorandum of understanding to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners that would begin the process to see if the plan is feasible. Rockingham County and the cities involved are expected to adopt similar memorandums of understanding in the near future.

“The funds were put in there by the state,” Conrad said, referring to $14.5 million state legislators set aside in the 2016-2017 budget to pay for water service in the two counties.

Conrad said a water system in northwest Guilford County could lead to a lot of growth there, but he added that it would be a very expensive project. He said at this point there are a lot of issues to be hashed out, but the study should provide some answers.

“Is it feasible?” he said. “Does Rockingham County have the capacity? There are a lot of questions.”

Conrad said a municipal water system creates a whole new level of opportunity in both the residential and commercial sector. He also said northwest Guilford County has had a lot of issues with well water contamination.

According to Conrad, the new project could mean lower water costs for Stokesdale compared to the current water that town is getting from Winston-Salem. He said it’s his understanding that that’s one reason Stokesdale is interested in participating even though the town already has water service.

Oak Ridge Town Manager Bruce Oakley said that having a water system would be a real enhancement for his town and the surrounding area.

“I’ve been here 12 years and contamination continues to be an issue in town,” he said of well water.

Oakley said the state’s recent drought has driven home a need for a reliable water supply, and he added that, while Oak Ridge hasn’t started to see wells dry up yet, that becomes a concern during periods of extended drought. He also said that continually digging new wells to support growth puts more strain on the available groundwater.

Oakley said that, based on preliminary discussions, he believes Rockingham County officials are eager to advance the project. “I think they would like to send the water,” Oakley said.

According to elected officials, the feasibility study and initial stages of infrastructure would be funded by the available state money and, eventually, tap fees and revenue from water sales would be used for continued expansion of the system.

In the 2016-2017 budget for the State of North Carolina, just over $14.5 million was set aside “to fund interconnection and extension of water lines to participating counties and municipalities undertaken by a Regional Water and Sewer Authority … provided that the Authority includes the Counties of Rockingham and Guilford and one or more municipalities within those counties.”

The funding criteria states that “the funds allocated by this section may also be used for one or more regional interconnections with municipalities in Rockingham or Guilford Counties that do not join the Authority described by this subsection if the interconnections are necessary to provide sufficient water resources to support the water system expansion needed to meet current and planned future needs of the Authority.”

The legislation states that, once the authority is formed, the funds will be transferred to it. The regional authority must be formed by the end of June of next year and the money must be used by that new authority for the water project by June 30, 2020, or the money reverts back to the state’s General Fund.

Rockingham County Manager Lance Metzler said that extending that county’s waterlines through southern Rockingham County to Guilford County would benefit those in both counties.

“Our role would be to run water line to the Guilford County line,” he said.

He added that the water Rockingham County has available and uses for its purposes comes from Reidsville and Madison, which have a good deal of extra capacity.

He said the $14.5 million would cover the cost for the feasibility study and initial water line installation, which would also aid development in southern Rockingham County.

That main line would likely run along the US 220 corridor.

In recent decades, there’s been a lot of growth in Rockingham County just north of the Guilford County line. A lot of people live in that county, where property taxes are lower, and work in Guilford County to be close to their places of employment.

Metzler said the construction of water lines would aid economic development along those new lines in Rockingham County.   He said connecting the existing Rockingham County water system to the Guilford County border would require a new main line of about five miles.

Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said he was not yet familiar with many details of the proposed project but that building a water infrastructure in northwest Guilford County could make a big difference when it comes to development.   Branson, who makes it a point to work closely with fire departments in Guilford County, added that firefighters would like to see the water system.

Former Stokesdale Mayor Randle Jones, who oversaw that town’s effort to bring a water service to Stokesdale about 15 years ago, said that at that time it was quite a leap for a town in North Carolina to take on a project of that size and complexity.

“I think we were one of the first systems to start from scratch in 25 years,” he said of that project.

Stokesdale qualified for a $3 million state grant for construction of a water system and plans were submitted to the state for approval in July 2000. Construction of the system, which didn’t cover every part of town, started two years later and much of the system was finished by July 2003.

Jones said having a water system does solve a lot of headaches.

“I think it’s been good for the community,” he said.

Jones also said there were several sources of contamination in his area including findings of ethylene dibromide in some water, though town officials weren’t sure where the problem originated.

“It was affecting individual wells,” he said.

Jones said the town explored a lot of loans and grants at that time and began the system with lines to contaminated wells and used the new revenue to expand the system.

“It was a complex project for a town or our size,” he said, adding that it was overseen by just five Town Council members and one clerk.

Jones also said Stokesdale was getting very good quality water from that system due to a new water processing plant Winston-Salem had built.

He said Stokesdale’s system did not have mandatory hookup requirements for the water system and he added that nevertheless developers usually choose to connect to the water system.

He said Stokesdale’s water system, along with area road improvements, is helping create growth.

“With the roads, it’s really a selling point,” he said of the water system that could be now expanded. “I think there’s a lot of potential for growth.”

Jones added that, at the time Stokesdale began its water project, the town didn’t have the option of forming an authority to manage it. He said it certainly was a lot of work to oversee and that, when he was mayor, some sort of water issue would come up just about every day.

Jones said having fire hydrants was one benefit and that having municipal water made it easier to establish things such as nursing homes and manufacturing facilities.

It can also mean lower costs for homeowners’ insurance for some.

Jones also said his own well at his house had had a problem with water contamination so he likes having the option of city water available.

“Looking back, I felt like as mayor, it was one of the best things I did,” he said of working with fellow Stokesdale officials to bring a water system to that town. “A lot of towns looked at it when we did and did not go forward with it and I think they might regret it. It helps in so many ways.”

Stokesdale oversees its water system, but one potential concern regarding a new regional water authority is that, once established, the new authority would have a powerful influence over where development went, in effect taking some power away from elected officials in the affected areas.