For about two years, Guilford County and three towns in the county’s northwest – Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale – have been in talks to create a unified and expansive water system that would cover the water needs of much of that part of the county.

However, more and more now, it looks like those towns are heading in their own separate directions when it comes to water; and, this week, Oak Ridge Mayor Spencer Sullivan released a statement of intent to explore the possibility of the town forming a water authority.

The Oak Ridge Town Council will discuss the proposal at a special called meeting on Tuesday, May 21.

Summerfield and Stokesdale also increasingly look like they might go it on their own when it comes to meeting future water needs.

About two years ago, the three towns and Guilford County entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly explore the feasibility of implementing a regional municipal water system.  A study, funded with state money and conducted by Timmons Associates, came in with initial estimates of over $50 million for that project – a price tag that caused town councilmembers and citizens in the three towns to do a real double-take.

In his recent public statement, Sullivan wrote that deliberations on this issue could take a year or more.

“In the meantime,” he wrote, “residential development in Oak Ridge is strong and ongoing, and is likely to continue.  I believe it is important for the Town to decide on a course of action now to assure that our citizens will have access to a safe, plentiful and reliable water supply for years to come, with local control and accountability for this critical resource.”

Mayor Sullivan went on to state that, several years ago, he began working on an approach that would use groundwater as the source for a water system that wouldn’t carry a tremendous price tag.  He stated that Oak Ridge could build up the infrastructure by establishing community well systems that the town would own.

According to Sullivan, this would be “independent” of the ongoing feasibility study, and “would have no bearing on it.”

It’s kind of hard to imagine that Oak Ridge establishing its own water system would have absolutely no bearing on a regional plan – however, since the regional plan looks fairly dead right now, that might very well be the case.

Private companies, Sullivan said, operate communal wells, but the town has little to no authority over the operations or the rates charged – which is why he’s proposing changing the town ordinances in a number of ways, including the formation of a town water authority.

The first step – adopting a resolution of intent – will be the topic of discussion at the May 21 special meeting.

“If the resolution passes,” Sullivan wrote, “the Council will consider engaging the services of a full-service utility company to consult with us, to assure that proper policies and procedures are established, and an economical and sound rate structure is set.  This will provide us with a complete and clear picture of the proposed community well system and its operation.  After their work with us is complete, the Town Council will then consider implementing the plan outlined above.  This process will include review by our Planning and Zoning Board, with public hearings both at that meeting and the subsequent Council meeting.”

According to the mayor, existing individual wells and well systems wouldn’t be affected by the proposed action.

As for the three-town water study, there hasn’t been much movement on that – at least not publically – though there have been ongoing discussions at the staff level in recent months.

Stokesdale already has its own water system – though it’s not happy with the rates it’s paying for water – and, in Summerfield, Town Council members are starting to kick around the idea of doing something on their own as well using groundwater.

Summerfield Town Councilmember John O’Day said this week that he’s against the northwest municipal water system explored in the study.

“The costs proposed to date are too high to even review the possibility further in my opinion,” he said.

O’Day added that the Town of Summerfield commissioned a study in 2016 specifically focused on the town’s water needs for fire protection.  He said town officials should dust that study off at the council’s retreat and examine the options.

O’Day said a tank and groundwater system might be able to provide water for fire protection along major arteries.  He also said that perhaps some of that water could be made available for other consumers if there was adequate capacity.

“This would be something we could do ourselves,” O’Day said of that possibility.

The Guilford County commissioners have been in on the talks of a regional water system to some extent and, while Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing has expressed a good deal of interest in a large-scale system in the northwest to enhance economic development opportunities, many county commissioners have said that they are content with taking their lead from the three towns on this matter.

At this point, it looks as though those towns are moving away from any plan that calls for a grand unified solution.