A crucial pillar of organizational leadership is making sure you focus on the right things. Neglect of even some of the right things typically becomes apparent at some point, when failure or even disaster strikes. It can be reassuring, then, to have information that helps validate your priorities and resource-investment decisions. For Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), one such source is the annual State of the Water Industry Survey, compiled by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the largest utility industry group in North America.
For 20 years, AWWA’s survey has provided a snapshot of topics highest on the lists of leaders at thousands of our peer utilities in the United States and Canada. Among other information, the survey ranks the top challenges utilities are facing. I am citing the top 10 of these below to share with you both how these priorities largely align with our own and how CFPUA is working to meet these challenges head-on.
Rehabilitation and replacement of aging water infrastructure: To see what an organization prioritizes, look first where it spends money. Each year, CFPUA prepares a 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that describes investments to be made over the next decade in our community’s water and wastewater system.
The latest 10-year CIP totals $648.4 million, and almost 77 percent of that total is for projects to rehabilitate or replace aging infrastructure. This includes projects such as the lion’s share of the estimated $250 million to be spent on the Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant Replacement project I wrote about in July, as well as a multitude of other work on infrastructure ranging from water and sewer mains and pump stations to the ever-improving technology that helps keep everything running safely and efficiently.
Long-term drinking water supply availability: Everything starts with water. While groundwater from the PeeDee and Castle Hayne aquifers provide some of the water we treat and distribute to customers, the most important source, providing 80 percent of CFPUA’s drinking water, is the Cape Fear River. Reliable access to water from the river is essential. This is why we continue to make investments like the new 54-inch line, completed in 2022 in partnership with Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority and Brunswick and Pender counties. This line not only increased raw water supply capacity but also provided redundancy to the existing 48-inch line that the new line parallels.
Financing for capital improvements: As noted above, ensuring our water and wastewater infrastructure provides reliable, safe service to our growing, vibrant community requires ongoing investment. CFPUA is a public organization, funded by ratepayers and operating at no profit. At the same time, we are constantly seeking grants, low-interest loans, and other outside funding options to help keep rates as low as possible and lessen the burden on our customers. The most recent result of these efforts is a $35 million low-interest loan from the State Revolving Fund, announced recently by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, that will help pay for the Southside Wastewater Plant project. Large projects such as the recently completed $46 million addition of new filters at Sweeney to effectively treat PFAS in our raw water typically require bond funding, with rates tied to a borrower’s creditworthiness. To keep borrowing costs low, CFPUA finance staff have developed and diligently adhered to financial policies that earn CFPUA high credit ratings of Aa1 and AA+ from Moody's and S&P, respectively.
Public understanding of the value of water resources: Water can seem endlessly abundant, particularly when you live in a community defined by water, with the river on one side and the ocean on the other. Of course, water is a finite resource, as we are reminded whenever our region enters drought conditions, and we must come together to conserve. At CFPUA, communicating smart use of water is an ongoing job, regardless of conditions. As the weather warms and the irrigation season approaches, we begin gearing up for a months-long campaign to encourage wise watering practices, which you can find at CFPUA.org/conserve.
Watershed/source water protection: An invaluable resource like water warrants diligent protection. At CFPUA, this includes advocacy with state and federal regulators, participation in organizations such as the Cape Fear River Partnership; Urban Water Consortium; Lower, Middle and Upper Cape River coalitions; collaboration with other water and wastewater providers that use and discharge along the Cape Fear River; and ongoing work to understand potential threats to the river basin and join with regional stakeholders on outreach and cooperative protection programs.
Aging workforce/anticipated retirements: Experience and the institutional knowledge that comes with it are priceless workforce assets. Like many larger organizations, CFPUA’s staff have decades of experience, including working for the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County utility systems before their merger into CFPUA in 2008. Many of these key staff members will be retiring soon. Recognizing this, CFPUA has ongoing programs to identify potential successors to supervisors and managers, to provide technical and managerial training, and to document key operational knowledge so it can be retained and passed along. This year, the Board authorized a dedicated Workforce Development Manager and has modified education policies to help staff attend college classes and to recruit new staff with the benefit of additional educational opportunities.
Public understanding of the value of water systems and services: The services CFPUA provides are easy to take for granted. Taking a shower, flushing the toilet, or filling a glass at the kitchen sink are hardly memorable parts of anyone’s day. With rare exceptions, drinking water and wastewater services work as expected, so they tend to fade into the background. This reliability, though, is the end product of a tremendous amount of round-the-clock effort to maintain pipes and pump stations, run sophisticated treatment plants, conduct constant monitoring to ensure regulatory compliance, and provide assistance to customers. To shine a spotlight on this work, we began producing a series of videos where staff on the front lines of this work share what they do and the pride they take in providing vital services to our community. You can view some of these at YouTube.com/@CFPUA.
Emergency preparedness: I write this in the midst of the latest hurricane season, so preparing for emergencies is definitely top-of-mind. CFPUA staff continually look for ways to increase resilience and preparedness to help ensure we can continue to provide safe, reliable water and wastewater services, even during hurricanes and other events. This includes placing generators at all key infrastructure, stockpiling extra fuel supplies, and even purchasing our own fuel truck to keep the system running during extended power outages.
Groundwater management and overuse: Groundwater is the source of about one-fifth of the drinking water CFPUA distributes to customers. The largest portion of this is water pumped from wells and treated at the Richardson Water Treatment Plant in the northern part of New Hanover County; the balance is from the smaller, well-based Monterey Heights System serving customers in the Monkey Junction area. The Cape Fear River can recover from drought fairly quickly after rainfall returns to normal, but rainwater typically takes decades to percolate down to aquifers. To manage this precious resource, CFPUA is interconnecting the three systems (Sweeney, Richardson, and Monterey Heights) to increase the proportion of customers receiving water from the Sweeney Plant, which treats water from the river. This already has occurred in the Richardson System, where many customers are receiving part or all their drinking water from Sweeney. In 2025, we will complete a project that likewise will significantly reduce reliance on groundwater to serve Monterey Heights customers, while leaving the existing wells available for use in emergencies.
Compliance with current regulations: Each year, CFPUA publishes reports for drinking water and wastewater detailing results of testing and compliance with state and federal regulations. These are available online at CFPUA.org. Regulatory compliance is a year-round, 24-hours-per-day effort, requiring dedicated staff at our water and wastewater treatment plants and our laboratories. Their work to consistently meet or exceed compliance regulations has garnered recognition from our regulators and industry peers. Examples include recent Peak Performance Gold Awards from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for our Northside and Southside wastewater treatment plants for a full year of operation with no violations to their discharge permits, and several consecutive annual Area Wide Optimization Awards from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality recognizing the staff at the Sweeney Plant for meeting successively more stringent regulations and achieving higher levels of water quality.
To conclude, I want to share a final result of AWWA’s survey that aligns with the outlooks of the CFPUA Board and its staff. While utility leaders nationwide cite a number of large, complex, long-term challenges, they nonetheless remain largely positive about prospects for the future. Asked to rate their optimism on a scale of 1 (least) to 7 (most), respondents on average placed their outlooks at a mostly sunny 5. We agree the future is bright, especially here in New Hanover County.
Challenges are rarely in short supply. We certainly have seen our share and will continue to see them. The optimistic outlook we share with our peer utilities is founded on our demonstrated ability, as outlined above, to consistently rise as an organization and as a community, to meet and overcome these challenges.
Emma Dill - Dec 4, 2023
Staff Reports - Dec 4, 2023
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