Water, Water … Nowhere

You may have heard that we're in a bit of a drought. You may have heard that you can't water your lawn or wash your Suburban, and you may have heard that it could get worse. But here's an idea that could make it all better. And you may not have heard about it

The McDowell Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is situated on the rural outskirts of Huntersville next to a 1,000-acre nature preserve and across the highway from a county park. It's a quiet, isolated and, yes, peaceful place, aside from the occasional whiff of sewage.

As plant supervisor Pete Goins looks out over the high-tech facility, explaining the science of the "biological nutrient removal process," he starts to get philosophical. "Of your electricity, cable TV, cell phone, and water, which is the most affordable and which could you not live without?" he asks, counting off each service on his fingers. "I still believe water is the most affordable of all utilities and yet the only thing so vital we cannot live without. If we don't blow up the world first fighting over oil, I believe water could be the cause of the next big crisis."

Goins isn't a doomsayer, but he is intimately familiar with the value of water and Charlotte's ongoing struggle to maintain its dwindling supply. As the drought and exploding population growth continue to drain the Catawba River, our water supply is in danger of drying up. While cooler temperatures and increased rainfall over the last several months helped ease the situation, Duke Energy, which maintains the lakes that provide our water, has indicated that with a winter forecast predicting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation, communities might have to take emergency measures sometime this spring to keep taps flowing.

The draining river has taken local leaders by surprise. For now, officials are pinning their hopes on conservation, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to start thinking differently about our water problem.

"We've always operated under the assumption that there was an unlimited amount of water in the Catawba, an assumption that is now being tested," says John Lassiter, an at-large member of the Charlotte City Council. "This drought question is still new to us. As a city that derives a great deal of value from that Catawba, we've got to examine all phases of our policies to see whether or not we're doing what we need to be doing should the drought condition worsen or this happens again."

There is one idea floating around, an idea that has worked other places. Donna Lisenby, who manages the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation's efforts to protect and enhance the river, calls this idea a "win-win." She says it would not only help conserve drinking water and provide nutrient-rich irrigation, but also reduce the amount of treated sewage going into the river and polluting the already impaired lakes and streams. "The drought," she adds, "has shown us just how critical it is to find new and innovative solutions for our community and our river."

A few public officials support this idea, but the people in charge of water conservation for the area say it's too ambitious and that it won't work here, at least on a scope large enough to make a difference.

Meanwhile, even after a relatively wet late December and early January, levels of Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte's primary source for drinking water, continue to be nearly a foot below normal. This is not good.

After smacking the snooze button on your alarm clock for the third time, you shuffle to the bathroom and turn on the shower. As the water swirls down the drain, it is transported through an elaborate system made up of some 3,865 miles of pipe. These water lines are configured so the water flows downhill, letting gravity do all the work. It's through this complex engineering labyrinth that all of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's wastewater—which is water that is flushed or goes down the drain and contains substances such as human waste, food scraps, oils, soaps, and chemicals—is sent to one of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department's (CMUD) five wastewater treatment plants. As you might imagine, we produce an awful lot of wastewater. In fact, CMUD treated an average of 86.5 million gallons of wastewater a day last year.

As wastewater enters each plant, it passes through bar screens, which capture solid particles and objects—rags, sticks, condoms—all of which go to a landfill. The water then flows into giant square tanks, where it is aerated to support growth of microorganisms that help remove harmful pollutants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia. As the treatment process continues, the water is sent to large basins known as digesters. Working much like our own stomachs, these digesters further separate solids and microorganisms and break down impurities. Next, the wastewater flows through sand filters, which remove any remaining minute particles of waste and grit. Finally the water is disinfected to remove pathogens like bacteria or fungi.

Here is where, some people say, we have an opportunity. Here's where we can reclaim some of that formerly filthy water and actually use it.

After it has been disinfected as much as it can be, the majority of the wastewater flows down a cascading waterfall, infusing it with more oxygen before it is ultimately released back into our creeks and streams. However, the tiny amount of water that's currently directed toward reclamation or reuse is sent to a separate facility, where it undergoes additional disinfection and cleansing by way of what are called membrane filters. This removes any remaining biological and chemical pollutants, rendering the water almost ready to drink. This "reclaimed" wastewater is then used for irrigation purposes and other processes that can use nonpotable water, such as concrete production, fire prevention systems, and machinery cooling.

But what if we reclaimed a whole bunch more of that water? No, it's not a silver-bullet solution to our evaporating water supply, but look at it this way: Every gallon of reclaimed water that is used to irrigate a lawn conserves a gallon of our increasingly scarce drinking water. The town of Cary has instituted a successful water-reclamation program, and at least two top Charlotte officials are vocal proponents of expanding the program here.

CMUD officials agree that such a program would be beneficial, but they also say it's easier said than done. "How things exist in theory can't always be put into practice when you factor in costs," says Maeneen Klein, water conservation coordinator for CMUD. Her department does reclaim a small fraction of the county's wastewater, but more for experimental purposes than for actual widespread use. She explains that a residential water-reclamation system requires a separate set of lines, in addition to the lines for sewage and drinking water. "It would mean thousands and thousands of miles of pipes and other infrastructure," she says. "Not only is that impractical, but the costs are substantial. We don't want to do something large scale and then discover it wasn't the best use of our resources."

There's also the issue of how to pay for a widespread residential system. Klein points out that the system would be far too expensive for only the end users to bear the costs, and it would be unfair to spread the costs to customers who don't irrigate their laws or even have lawns. A far more practical way to proceed, she says, is for CMUD to invest its resources into small water-reclamation pilot projects, which are used to irrigate commercial entities near the projects.

The department, which reports to the Charlotte City Council, has reclaimed-water facilities at two of its five plants. The first was launched in 1998 at the Mallard Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, and it pumps reclaimed water to irrigate the Tradition Golf Course. Last year, as part of a $78 million expansion that doubled its wastewater treatment capacity, a water-reclamation system was built at the McDowell plant. Klein says the utility is looking for a company—such as a greenhouse or tree farm—to move its operations to land next to the facility and use McDowell's reclaimed water for irrigation.

Klein says these smaller projects are more practical because they require fewer distribution lines. And a business like a golf course or tree farm requires large and consistent water applications. Residential irrigation occurs mostly during the summer, and usually only a few times a week. "The Tradition Golf Course is working quite well," she says. "And the McDowell project will hopefully help guide us in our future decisions. If it works, that might suggest we explore other large-scale uses. Certainly we would love to see this program expanded. But we feel like it's prudent to do so in measured steps until we're sure it's financially sound."

Other nearby communities and towns have already started water-reclamation programs. Cove Key, a small townhouse development at Lake Norman, uses reclaimed water to irrigate its landscaping. John Vest, Mooresville's public service director, says the town is planning on building a water-reclamation facility at the Rocky River Wastewater Treatment Plant and using reclaimed water to irrigate the Mooresville Golf Course and perhaps a few residential developments.

Across the state, several municipalities, including Raleigh and Wilson, use reclaimed water, but to a limited degree. "Many towns are struggling to find funding for their existing, aging water infrastructure, so adding a third system is financially difficult," says Kim Colson of the North Carolina Division of Water Quality.

One exception is Cary. The town, a bedroom community of Raleigh, was facing critical water-supply issues, and many of its new residential developments were putting in irrigation systems. So in 2000 Cary became the first, and so far the only, municipality in North Carolina to offer reclaimed water in residential developments for irrigation.

On a peak day, Cary diverts more than a million gallons from two treatment plants for reuse, rather than discharging into creeks. The system consists of nearly twenty miles of pipeline across two sections of Cary, which deliver reclaimed water to close to 400 homes. The project costs about $10.7 million and was funded through the town's capital improvement budget. Revenue from the sale of reclaimed water is being used to offset the cost of construction. The town now has three reclaimed-water districts—all within proximity to water-reclamation plants—and any new development in these districts is required to use reclaimed water.

"The [developers] pretty much like the idea now," says Robert Bonne, Cary's utility director. "With the drought there's a lot of people that aren't allowed to use water, but all the people in our reclaimed service areas are allowed to as long as they're using reclaimed water."

Bonne says reclaimed water use will extend the service life of their drinking-water plants and delay the costly expansion of the water-reclamation facilities. He adds that the initial water-reuse projects have proven so successful the town is conducting a study to see how much it should expand the system.

If Cary can make it mandatory for some new developments to use reclaimed water, why can't Charlotte? Barry Gullet, deputy director of CMUD, says the department has "batted the idea around" internally, but it hasn't gotten very far because the operating costs are still too prohibitive. "There are a lot of state and EPA regulations that are pretty rigid related to reuse, and we're just not ready to go to single-family levels yet with reuse."

Instead, Gullet says they're looking at reclaimed water more for the purpose of reducing the amount of treated wastewater being discharged into Mountain Island Lake. (Last year CMUD treated more than 31.5 billion gallons of wastewater, approximately 75 percent of which was pumped back into the river.) He also says that reclaimed water is not the best solution during a drought.

"Reclaimed water, were it not used to irrigate grass, would be going back into the creek and replenishing the water supply downstream. So we don't really want to encourage more irrigation during drought periods."

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of all of Charlotte's drinking water goes to watering people's lawns, a fact that seems all the more glaringly wasteful in these parched times. During the current watering ban, which officials don't expect to remove anytime soon, that figure will go down. But if and when the restrictions ease, it will jump right back up. And as most of Charlotte's development is in the suburbs, with its lush new lawns to maintain, that percentage is likely to increase. In other words, the demand on Charlotte's water system is only going to increase, and the supply almost certainly won't be able to keep up. "I think the drought has been a wake-up call," says Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby.

City Councilman Anthony Foxx, who heads the council's environment committee, says that while the city hasn't looked at the issue of water reuse specifically, the council recently approved the city's general development policy, which focuses on environmental issues like water conservation. "Certainly water reclamation and reuse could fit within the rubric of what we approved . . . that's a discussion I think the council should have."

County Commissioner Parks Helms goes further. He says that although CMUD is a division of the city of Charlotte, he believes that as a result of the drought and to protect Charlotte's water supply in the long term, the county should partner with the city on some innovative solutions, including water reclamation. "Investing in reclamation projects—to include residential developments—is not only environmentally critical, but also fiscally sound," he says. "Unless we intervene in the increasing scarcity of water, the cost to our citizens and taxpayers will be much greater in future years."

Despite all the warnings and restrictions, it's still difficult for most people to imagine a time when they turn on the faucet and nothing comes out. While such a scenario isn't likely to happen anytime soon, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has nonetheless been under mandatory water restrictions since late August, and most of North Carolina remains under "exceptional drought conditions."

"I think water reclamation is an important part of the solution," Lisenby says. "We have the technology; the biggest barrier is our political will. Our elected officials and leaders need to step up and make it happen."