Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Partners With Others For Water Supply Protection

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department partners with other utilities in its watershed to help secure a future of abundant and high-quality water.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Partners With Others For Water Supply Protection
Charlotte-Mecklenburg employees are required to secure progressively higher levels of certification.

The Catawba River may seem like an endless supply of water flowing from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department (CMUD) know different.

Severe droughts in the 1990s, 2002 and 2007 proved that Carolinas communities drawing water from the river could ultimately reach its capacity — by 2048 or sooner according to studies — if no actions were taken.

In response, CMUD and other utilities in the river basin banded together as the nonprofit Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group (CWWMG), devoted to actions to extend the river’s life as a water source. Members include 18 utilities from North and South Carolina that draw from the Catawba, along with Duke Energy, the local electric and gas utility.

In the meantime, CMUD, which serves the North Carolina City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and surrounding communities, dedicated itself to sustainable operations, including broad initiatives to increase efficiency and save energy.

Heavily used

The Catawba River (known as the Wateree River south of where it enters South Carolina) is heavily used. It includes 11 Duke Energy impoundments and hydroelectric dams — these serve as main sources for water utilities that supply homes and businesses. Eighteen public water suppliers draw from the main stem of the Catawba-Wateree, and numerous communities take water from tributaries.

CMUD, the largest water utility in the Carolinas, sees an average drinking water demand of 105 mgd. Its three water treatment plants and 4,000 miles of distribution pipes serve 250,000 accounts. Growth in Mecklenburg County continues to outpace neighboring counties.

Planning for the resource

In 2007, Charlotte-Mecklenburg led the incorporation of the CWWMG. Members include 18 utilities from North and South Carolina that draw from the Catawba River, as well as Duke Energy.

“Without significant effort to manage water consumption, this generation could see a time when there will not be enough water flowing in the Catawba-Wateree River to support more people moving into the heart of North or South Carolina,” says Barry Gullet, CMUD director. “Not enough water to support new jobs, produce more electricity to drive new industry or ensure the quality of life we currently enjoy.”

The CWWMG exists to identify, fund and manage projects that help extend and enhance the river system’s capacity to meet human water needs — water supply, power production, industry, agriculture and commerce — while maintaining the river’s ecological health.

The group is completing a regional Water Supply Master Plan. That plan established a scenario that extends the river’s water yield by nearly 50 years. “We’re proud of the plan and think this is a good model for at least the rest of North Carolina, if not beyond,” says Gullet.

In creating the plan, the CWWMG solicited guidance from a 19-member public stakeholder team representing environmental interests, lake users, local governments and state agencies. Together, they updated long-term water-use projections, evaluated options and developed long-term basin-wide conservation strategies. The plan calls for a series of measures to make water more available and use water more efficiently.

The plan also calls for improved drought management, and to that end the organization partnered with U.S. Geological Survey to establish new groundwater monitoring sites. The group is also undertaking projects designed to enhance and coordinate drought response.

“Getting the water utilities working together and creating the partnership with Duke Energy was a big step forward,” says Gullet. “We took an approach of mutual gains and benefits and came up with scenarios that are sustainable.”

The regional partnership has already generated benefits that include information and resource sharing, and projects that enhance water resource management, increased water use efficiency and public outreach. Future goals include reducing per capita water use, reducing or consolidating intakes, and reducing sediment infill.

The master plan outlines the development of sound, comprehensive raw-water intake contingency plans for its public water suppliers. The group reviewed each intake’s condition, vulnerabilities and existing contingency plans, then ranked the criticality of each intake for its ability to provide adequate water during periods of low flow in the river.

Eye on efficiency

Along with formation of the CWWMG, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg utility shifted from a focus on rapid growth to a focus on continuous improvement. As a priority, the utility embraced sustainability, energy management and conservation. It adopted a Think-Do-Check-Act cycle and a 40-point action plan targeting areas for improvement. That plan is still in use.

CMUD retrofitted energy-efficient equipment and made use of other opportunities to save electricity. Since 2012, the utility has received or awaits approval on $75,000 in electric utility incentives for energy savings. Power offset programs at treatment facilities have also saved more than $500,000.

The more than 760 CMUD employees are required to acquire high levels of certification. “Our employees make a profound impact on all we do and ensure that all the improvements work,” notes Gullet. “It’s an investment that benefits the community and the environment.”

CMUD also contributes to the development of stakeholder communications, including a rate study completed with public input. “We developed customer trust through collaborative development of the 40-point action plan,” says Gullet. “It resulted in rate structure changes that provide more stable revenue while maintaining affordability and conservation incentives.”

Looking ahead

For the future, the CWWMG is considering a follow-up project to address water-quality concerns in the basin. “The management of our regional water supply will continue to be a key issue for our utilities and customers, particularly as unusual bouts of extended drought or extreme wet weather occur,” says Gullet. “As a founding leader in the Catawba-Wateree group, Charlotte-Mecklenburg reaffirms its commitment to protecting shared natural resources.

“No utility can solve the problems individually. We understand how interconnected and interrelated the lakes, reservoirs and dam operations are with each other. The system counts on all of us working together.”   


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