SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - GenX and PFAS aren’t the only concerns on the minds of officials in charge of the Cape Fear region’s water supply.
At their annual retreat Wednesday, board members of the Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority discussed the uncertain future of the source of the vast majority of the area’s drinking water — Lock & Dam No. 1.
Located near Riegelwood, about 39 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Lock & Dam No. 1 is the intake point for 80 percent of the drinking water provided by CFPUA.
Along with two other dams further upstream, Lock & Dam No. 1 is owned and maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It was built in 1915, and in 1943 the predecessor of CFPUA constructed an intake for raw water to supply Wilmington. In 1984, the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA) added an intake for its system.
In 2012, a fish passage structure was added as an environmental trade-off when the Port of Wilmington sought to widen its turning basin.
The last time Lock & Dam 1 saw any commercial traffic, its original purpose, was 1995. In the time since, the USACE has been evaluating “disposition” of the three dams, meaning the Corps would no longer be responsible for operating and maintaining the infrastructure.
In 2018, the money to fund a study of what it would take to de-authorize and dispose of the properties finally came available, and in recent months USACE has finalized its recommendation that the dams be “de-authorized” or turned over to another, non-federal governmental group.
CFPUA spokesperson Vaughn Hagerty said the future of Lock & Dam No. 1 is of extreme interest to regional water authorities because nearly 600,000 customers are served by the water source.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Lock & Dam No. 1 went away, our supply, our current supply of raw water would not be available,” he said. “There is no substitute for that water, so we would either have to rebuild all of that infrastructure so that it doesn’t necessarily need that, and we’re talking millions and millions of millions of dollars, or we have to search for another source and I’m not sure where that source is.”
The pool formed by the dam reportedly holds upwards of two million gallons of water, and Hagerty explained that without the dam, the river would not be deep enough for the intake to work properly. Additionally, the dam provides a barrier to keep saltwater from moving further upstream.
CFPUA board members exhibited concern over the issue during discussion at their annual retreat in Wilmington.
“I see this as a critical issue," said New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple. “We can’t operate without that pool. We can’t operate without Lock & Dam No. 1, and it will affect the lives of a lot of people.”
Hagerty explained there are three primary options: USACE maintaining control, the state of North Carolina taking over the dams, or local authorities coming together to form a coalition that would take over control.
He said the first option is pretty much a non-starter given the Corps’ effort to de-authorize the sites, and while the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is leading discussions at the state level, details on what agency would even consider taking over control has not been addressed.
On the local side, he said LCFWASA is in the process of conducting a study for what exactly the operation and maintenance of Lock & Dam No. 1 and its cohorts would entail.
According to the USACE study, the Corps is now spending $450,000 each year on the three dams, but in the past, the funding has been closer to $800,000 to cover the costs.
Once that comes back, Zapple and Wilmington City Council Member Kevin O’Grady suggested approaching their respective governmental bodies with resolutions.
Other board members suggested CFPUA reach out to Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to ask them to see what can be done at the federal level to potentially have USACE maintain the infrastructure but under an environmental or drinking water purpose, rather than commercial traffic.
The discussion comes almost a year after the WECT Investigates team uncovered what can happen to USACE infrastructure that is de-authorized by the Corps, but not properly maintained by local authorities.
Hagerty anticipates the LCFWASA study should be completed by the end of January, and CFPUA staff would bring that information and any further recommendations to the board after that time.
The USACE study and draft recommendation are available online, and public comments are being accepted by email at SAWCFLDDispositionStudy@usace.army.mil.