With More Frequent Drought, Ensuring Communities Have Water

This summer, more than 96% of North Carolina experienced drought conditions.

Gary Hartong, PE
August 24, 2022
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While North Carolina is not under the strain of unprecedented megadrought seen in the Southwestern US, more than 96% of the state had drought conditions this summer. Extended dry spells and the resulting impacts have become more common in the Southeast since the turn of the century.

North Carolina’s worst drought came in August of 2007. More than 60% of the state experienced extreme conditions. At one point 79% of water customers statewide – 5 million people – were under restrictions.

The Wilson Times noted that Lake Wilson had “dried up beyond recognition” and local reservoirs were not faring much better. In response, the City of Rocky Mount contracted with The Wooten Company to design and permit an emergency waterline to pump water from the Tar River for treatment and transmission to the City of Wilson.

By the end of 2007, the drought had cost the state’s agricultural industry more than $537 million in damage.

When it comes to regulating water withdrawal, public water systems have limited recourse. If upstream water extractors – often agricultural irrigators – or drought conditions affect a public water system’s river intake or groundwater levels, negotiation is often the only option.

Regulatory action, however, is occasionally needed. In August 2002, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission stepped in to control groundwater withdrawals for 15 counties in the east. The establishment of the Central Coastal Plain Capacity Use Area (CCPCUA) designated three groundwater zones, required mandatory groundwater withdrawal reductions, and required individual permitting and annual reporting by major water users.

In response to this rule enactment, The Wooten Company and other partners assisted eight local governments and water corporations in Pitt and Lenoir Counties to establish the Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority (NRWASA). The utility now pulls water from the Neuse River near La Grange for permitted treatment of 15 million gallons per day and 78 miles of distribution to reduce the demand on underlying groundwater aquifers.

In addition to conservation measures familiar to the public, actions can be taken at higher levels to reduce potable water demand. Establishing and expanding reclaimed water programs is one way communities sustain drinking water reserves. Advanced processing at wastewater treatment plants can produce water suitable for a wide variety of purposes, such as flushing toilets, irrigating athletic fields, controlling dust, washing streets, and cooling towers. The cost to operate and maintain a reclaimed water program can be largely or entirely offset by reclaimed water customers.

Another way to maximize clean water availability is through active system asset identification and management. These systems often lose 20% or more of their finished water through leaking pipes, valves, and meters. Water system operators that have up-to-date GIS maps understand what assets are buried beneath them. This information supports pro-active operation and maintenance programs, as well as populates capital improvement plans, to address system deficiencies. In turn, customers can be better served during water shortages.

The same forces causing megadrought elsewhere are applying pressure to public water systems in the Carolinas more often, especially during the hottest and driest months of the year. Private citizens, business leaders, and elected officials should be mindful that having enough water is a must for every community and should not be taken for granted.

Gary Hartong, PE is President of The Wooten Company, a civil design and architectural services firm headquartered in Raleigh. He serves as Vice Chair of the American Council of Engineering Companies. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Hartong earned an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering in 1998 and a master’s degrees in civil engineering in 2009.

Gary Hartong, PE