I had some questions after last night's Town Council meeting so I called OWASA today and asked planning director Ed Holland what's up with Jordan Lake. Here's what I learned:
What kind of allocation from Jordan Lake does OWASA have now? OWASA has a level 2 allocation to draw up to 5MGD (million gallons/day). Level 2 means for an unspecified future use, and the utility spends about $12,000 a year to hang on to it, more than $200,000 since 1988.
What kind of allocation does OWASA want in the future? OWASA plans to ask the state to convert its allocation to level 1, which anticipates needing the water within the next five years. The state is reviewing allocations across the Jordan Lake regional partnership, a process that could take a year or more.
How would OWASA get the water from Jordan Lake? The state no longer allows single entities to build their own intake or treatment plant on the lake. Plus OWASA could not afford that anyway. Instead the utility would pay Cary to withdraw, treat and send the water to Durham and pay Durham to send it to OWASA.
So what's the problem? Plenty. OWASA wants to use Jordan Lake during future droughts. But 2001's Water and Sewer Management Agreement (they call it WASAMBA) restricts such transfers to emergencies (or non-emergencies if local governments that control OWASA give prior consent). Buying Jordan Lake water to prevent conservation measures and a big rate surcharge would not be considered an emergency, says Holland. (And after last night, it's doubtful that either Chapel Hill or Carrboro, which had already rejected any changes, would give their consent.)
What happened last night? The Town Council, which had previously approved the changes, reversed itself. Instead of a 7-2 vote giving OWASA the go-ahead, it voted 7-2 to take it back. (What happened? Well, council members gave their initial approval after 11 p.m. on Feb. 28. They probably wanted to go home.) Did the reversal surprise OWASA? "At this point nothing surprises me," Holland says.
What happens next? OWASA will regroup, try to seek a compromise. It could also withdraw from WASAMBA and pursue its long term water strategy unencumbered. But Chapel Hill and Carrboro appoint 7 of the OWASA board's 9 members, so you do the math.
Bottom line: OWASA is probably not going to run out of water. But there's not as much wiggle room, the agency says. Drought has taught customers how to get by with less, and with growth there is less to go around. Having Jordan Lake as a backup would let the utility drain its own, cleaner lakes longer before having to take water from polluted Jordan. "We want Jordan Lake as an insurance policy," Holland says. "Our risk will increase as demand gradually grows."