NC Water Systems Need $26B, Says DEQ

Apr 27, 2017

The Oxford Wastewater Treatment Plant treats 3.5 million gallons of wastewater per day. The N.C. Division of Environmental Quality warns that water and wastewater systems around the state need attention.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Flooding. Sewer spills. Contaminated drinking water.

Across North Carolina's communities, water systems have been pushed to their limits, and in some cases overrun. Hurricane Matthew, for example, wreaked havoc. On a smaller scale, flooding throughout the Triangle this week showed that drainage systems are susceptible even outside major disasters.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality warns these problems – and more – will continue to percolate through the state. Many of the pipes running underground were laid 50, 75 or even 100 years ago, and upgrades have been ignored for too long, said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan.

"Infrastructure investments have been deferred year after year after year, resulting in gaps that can have serious consequences during times of added stress on our systems, with growing populations or when storms bring unprecedented rainfall," he said.

Water and wastewater infrastructure needs for North Carolina over the next 20 years are estimated to range from $17 billion to $26 billion, which equals $900 million to $1.3 billion per year.
Credit N.C. Department of Environmental Quality / Division of Water Infrastructure

Some 8 million North Carolinians are served by water systems every day, or about 80 percent of the state. The others pull water from a household well system. On the discharge side, more than 1.4 billion gallons per day of wastewater are treated and then discharged into streams and rivers by nearly 300 publicly owned treatment works, according to DEQ.

Regan added that other infrastructure spending, like roads or airports, get more attention because they tend to be more top of mind or have a more popular appeal. In some ways, water systems work too well. Residents have so few problems that they almost take for granted that water systems run smoothly.

However, these water systems won't flow smoothly forever.

In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly established the State Water Infrastructure Authority to assess the state’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs.

A report issued by the group this week offers a sobering warning. According to the authority, water systems around the state will need as much as $26 billion of infrastructure spending but "only a fraction of today's infrastructure capital needs can be met with currently available state or federal subsidized funding levels."

Regan and others with the authority acknowledge the repairs won’t come cheap, but warn that if communities continue to ignore the pipes that carry drinking water to millions of North Carolinians, it will result in a catastrophe downstream.