There is nothing quite like a clogged toilet or drain to disrupt a family’s life. Many times, all it takes is applying a plunger to the problem, and life goes on. Sometimes, though, no amount of plunging will clear the pipes in your home. So, you call a plumber and wait, sometimes days, while you and your family may be unable to flush toilets, take showers, wash clothes, run the dishwasher, and such. These activities are so essential to the health and happiness of a modern household, yet we take them for granted – until we no longer have a functioning system to take away our wastewater.
Like the pipes in our homes and businesses that carry away wastewater, few of us give much thought to what happens after the water goes down the drain. Did you know that the communitywide system that collects wastewater after it leaves customers’ properties safely and reliably handles about 17 million gallons of sewage on an average day?
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) manages and maintains this wastewater system, which comprises more than 1,000 miles of pipes and 157 pump stations. This system collects what goes down drains and toilets of more than 74,400 residential, commercial, and government customers throughout Wilmington and much of unincorporated New Hanover County and sends it, along with wastewater from customers in the Town of Wrightsville Beach, for extensive treatment. This treatment occurs at one of two wastewater treatment plants: our Northside facility located across from Wilmington International Airport, and our Southside facility, on River Road just north of Independence Boulevard. CFPUA and our wastewater staff have received several national recognitions for their performance, including a 2022 Gold Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for diligence in complying with discharge permit regulations.
Over many decades, this largely invisible system of pipes, pumps, and treatment plants has expanded and improved along with our growing community. This work started with investments by the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County, which operated and maintained separate wastewater and drinking water systems before merging them in 2008 to form CFPUA.
The City made one of its most significant investments more than a half-century ago in constructing the Southside Plant, which City staff began operating in 1972 and which CFPUA staff continue to operate today. Southside has undergone numerous upgrades over the years and continues to meet all regulatory standards for treatment. However, in the world of wastewater treatment plants, 51 years in operation is a long time. The Southside Plant is approaching the end of its useful life, and this critical community asset must be replaced before it fails.
A completely new, modernized wastewater treatment plant will be constructed next to the existing Southside Plant, which will continue to function until its replacement is complete in 2030. Engineering work on the project is beginning this year, and by early 2025, we expect to begin construction. The new plant will feature many treatment upgrades and sustainable energy options. While the replacement is required even if we don’t continue to add new CFPUA sewer customers, the new plant also will increase treatment capacity from the current 12 million gallons per day (MGD) to 16 MGD, so the Southside and Northside plants together can accommodate the growth our community inevitably will experience in the coming years.
Costs to replace and rehabilitate aging infrastructure will continue to account for a large portion of CFPUA’s annual budgets. With an estimated cost of $250 million, the Southside replacement is the largest project ever undertaken by CFPUA and was the focal point of discussions about CFPUA’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024).
It’s important to remember that CFPUA is a local government agency, not a private corporation. Our not-for-profit operations are funded almost entirely by revenues from ratepayers.
Although CFPUA only maintains enough cash reserves to protect our AA+ and Aa2 credit ratings, these reserves are insufficient to fund the Southside replacement. We will need to borrow money to complete Southside and other capital projects, and paying for this additional debt requires rate increases. If these costs were to be absorbed by CFPUA’s customers in a single year, it would have resulted in an estimated 24 percent increase in rates in the summer of 2025.
Instead, the CFPUA Board and staff worked diligently over several months to craft a plan that spreads the additional revenue required to fund the Southside project over five years. As a result, under the Fiscal Year 2024 budget the Board approved in June, the average CFPUA water and sewer customer will see an increase in their monthly bills of $3.19, or 4.6 percent. Similar increases are anticipated over the next four years, subject to approval by the Boards presiding in those years. Our goal is to come in below these projections every year, to be as efficient as possible, and to increase rates only enough to cover our costs.
The $112.9 million operating budget for FY24 also includes increases in system development charges (SDCs). SDCs are not included in monthly CFPUA bills but are one-time fees paid by new development to buy into the system and reimburse the community for infrastructure that existing customers have already funded and paid for. Even with this increase, CFPUA’s SDCs remain below those of its peers in the region.
No one wants an increase in any monthly bill, and certainly the bill for the essential services CFPUA provides is not the only one increasing in our inflationary environment. As anyone who has attended meetings of our Board and its committees can testify, affordability has been and will continue to be a central topic of discussion guiding our decision-making – along with considerations for system reliability and efficiency. The Southside replacement project is essential to the continued safe, reliable wastewater service that helps protect the quality of life we all enjoy, here in this beautiful, environmentally fragile place we have the privilege to share. This replacement is needed so that you don’t have to worry about what happens to the water once it leaves your drain.
Over the next several months, you can expect to hear much more about the Southside Plant project from me and my fellow Board members, our staff at CFPUA, and community stakeholders with interests ranging from business and development to the environment and public health. I would encourage you to visit CFPUA.org to learn more.
Emma Dill - Dec 4, 2023
Staff Reports - Dec 4, 2023
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