By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
KURE BEACH - The Kure Beach Town Council addressed the cost of irrigation meters and water conservation during their July 18th, meeting following an inquiry by local resident Debbie Elliott regarding the high cost of installing a meter.
The Town of Kure Beach has long encouraged people to conserve water in hopes of protecting their drinking water wells from salt water intrusion which can occur in coastal areas. If enough water is drawn from underground aquifers near bodies of salt water, the salt water is no longer held back by the fresh water and enters the aquifer. That can force well owners to seek other more costly methods of producing drinking water such as de-salination or reverse osmosis.
Elliott lives in the SeaWatch subdivision and said, "I'm here on behalf of our homeowners association. We have been working really hard to try to find a more affordable way to irrigate our landscape. We have explored a variety of options including a community well which does not seem feasible for a variety of reasons. Then I didn't even know at the beginning of this journey that we could buy an irrigation meter. Then I found out that it was $4,000.00 dollars. Then after more inquiry I found out that the same type of irrigation meter is only $705.00 in Carolina Beach. I haven't' been able to verify this, but I understand it's only like $250.00 from New Hanover County."
According to Carolina Beach Town Manager Michael Cramer the cost for an irrigation meter varies. If you do not already have a separate existing irrigation water line and want one installed, the cost is around $2,000 for a 1" line. If you want to split your existing potable water line - and have the capacity you need to get a new meter - that cost is around $600.00, then add a deposit of $150.00 and a $55.00 set up fee for a total of $805.00. Once an account is set up the monthly water use charge is $4.78 per 1,000 gallons. The Carolina Beach water rate for irrigation meters was reduced as of July 1st, down from $12.90 per month to $4.78 per month per 1,000 gallons of use. There are 143 irrigation meters currently being billed for by the Town of Carolina Beach.
For the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, according to a table of rates and fees available on their website site the cost for a 5/8" meter is $1,510.00 for installation. The typical water rate applies, but there is no charge for sewer discharge per month. The Authority only serves the City of Wilmington and unincorporated areas of New Hanover County.
Elliott explained, "When I asked around about this I was told that the Town Council set the rate and that one of the reasons was to conserve water and I just don't understand that. I wanted to come here tonight to better understand that. If I had an irrigation meter I don't anticipate I would be using any more water to irrigate my property than I am right now. I can't speak for everyone in our community but I don't have a big yard but I do pay over $400.00 a month, as high as $460.00 per month, water bill during the summer months. During the winter when I'm not using irrigation my water bill is $60.00 or $70.00. When we start to use our irrigation it's well over $300.00 and during the really hot months it's $440.00, $460.00. That's a lot each month and so is $4,000.00 dollars."
She explained, "I feel like the $4,000.00 rate is a huge disincentive. I'm assuming the City, the Town Council doesn't want anyone to buy an irrigation meter. I'm asking why?"
Councilman David Heglar is a life long native of Kure Beach and has served for many years on the Council. Heglar explained, "I've been on the record at multiple meetings, both budget meetings and council meetings on this issue, and just like I've done in the past I'll go back and pull all of that so you have the history of it. But basically the position that I've encouraged the Council to take - and the Public Works Director has as well - is that we should not be using our limited water supply for irrigation and the Council should price water such that people don't do that. One, we are treating water so instead putting ground water on to the ground you are putting chlorinated water on and then you have the runoff issues. Two, the water issues we've seen in California around water, sooner or later that's going to be a problem here on the east coast."
Heglar said, "We should be encouraging conservation any way we can. The Council in the last four years that I've been on has changed the water rates significantly to basically penalize over usage of water. This is the same issue with the irrigation side. We probably could say there is no irrigation meter but the previous Town Council's had an irrigation meter system so we didn't eliminate that but what we did do was make it priced fairly high."
Heglar said, "I think Carolina Beach is wrong in having $705.00 for an irrigation meter. And I think if you look at their water bill, what they are doing is they are basically hitting the people that need to use water and sewer for the things people use it for and basically promoting people to use [drinking water] for irrigation and I think that irresponsible."
Elliott explained, "So is the Town of Kure Beach going on the record saying none of your 2,000 permanent citizens should have the opportunity to irrigate their lawns?"
Heglar said, "We haven't said that."
Elliott said, "When I drove over here I saw a lot of lawns and I can imagine the Town is making a huge amount of revenue."
Heglar said, "The Town is shifting the cost of water and sewer in the Town from citizens that use water and sewer for personal use to the people that are spraying it on the lawn. That's exactly right."
Elliott said, "I feel that I am being unfairly burdened financially by that and I find that to be a very unique attitude among elected officials in New Hanover County. I've invested, as have a lot of people in this community, in their landscape, so if you are telling me I shouldn't be irrigating my lawn then..."
Heglar said, "We are not telling you that. We didn't tell you that."
Elliott said, "I think that's what I just heard. That you are discouraging people from irrigating their lawns."
Mayor Pro Tem Craig Bloszinsky explained, "We want the people who use the water to pay for the water."
Elliott explained that currently she is paying for the water to irrigate her lawn, but in Kure Beach the sewer charge is based on how much water use is registered on the meter. An irrigation meter would separate the water irrigating the lawn from the water being used within the home. Since the irrigation use has no impact on the sewer system, it should not be billed for sewer use.
Elliott explained, "I'm paying for the water and the sewer to irrigate my lawn. I want the opportunity like every other citizen in New Hanover County, except for those that live in Kure Beach, to have the opportunity to get an irrigation meter that is priced within a reasonable amount. And I find it unreasonable that you are imposing such an incredible burden on the citizens."
Heglar said, "Have you looked outside to what's happening in southeastern North Carolina with water and other parts of the country, specifically California, where people not only stopped irrigating but ripped up their yards and put it back the way it was because of this issue."
Elliott said, "It sounds to me that you have an agenda that you would like us to go to natural yards."
Heglar said, "My personal position is that water across the globe is a limited resource that continues to be stressed. And anything that anyone in a position of impacting that can do to reduce that, they should do."
Elliott said, "I do everything I can to reduce the amount of water to irrigate my lawn but dollar for dollar, every study I've read says that landscaping is going to improve your property value. So a lot of people in this community have invested in landscaping and now we are just footing the bill. But anyway, that's my three minutes."
The Town has three residential accounts with irrigation meters. During fiscal year 2017, those three accounts used a total of 749,380 gallons. Within the past two weeks, another resident paid for an irrigation meter, but it has not yet been installed.
Mayor Emilie Swearingen explained, "As the strongest environmentalist on the Council I will voice my personal opinion. When I was working on my graduate degree at NC State I did a study for one of the professors there on what the most important environmental problem is in this state and sent it out to probably the people that run this state the most, business people, corporations, elected officials... I had a 67% return and the overwhelming issue was water quality and quantity. That will always be an issue in this country but also in this state."
She explained, "Conservation of natural resources should be one of the number one things this country thinks about. Sod is not indigenous to Kure Beach or to southeastern North Carolina. You don't have to have sod. You can make a beautiful lawn other ways and I would be willing to bet there are a lot of people right here in this room tonight who can tell you how to do that. I will always vote for conservation of our natural resources first above everything."
Elliott said, "I understand that. I'm almost sensing there is an implication that because I have a landscape, which has very little turf, very little turf, but because I have a landscape that is important to my family, and flowers, and brings me joy, that I am somehow not an environmentalist."
Heglar said, "I did not say that. The Mayor's talking about environmentalist. What I said was, I support the citizens of Kure Beach doing whatever they want but I believe that as the public works commissioner the Council should enact a financial policy and rate structure that encourages conservation of water and that's what I've lead the Council to do over the time I've been on."
He explained, "Initially if you look back at the water increase that happened two years ago... we reduced how much you got for the minimum. We did that target because we looked at the people on fixed income in Kure Beach and older citizens and said "They're using the minimum" because we can look at that data. So everyone else, if you are going to use more than the minimum you are going to pay more even though we didn't really increase" the rate.
He explained, "Then we looked at the tiered system that the Town has had for a long time and increased the cost per gallon as you reached the higher tiers. And the final thing, what you are concerned about, and I agree the Council did this, and it's been this way since the 90's, the Council disincentive people to have irrigation meters. That doesn't mean you can't have one. It just cost a lot. If you are really spending $400.00 verses $75.00, it pays for itself in two years."
Elliott explained, "I also have to pay $4,000.00 up front. No financing. No opportunity to pay over twelve months or anything. So it's out of the reach of most people who live" in Kure Beach.
Heglar said, "Oh come on. It's not out of the reach of anyone in Kure Beach. $4,000.00 is not out the reach of anyone in Kure Beach."
Elliott said, "I don't have $4,000.00 in my bank account for an irrigation meter."
Heglar said, "For an irrigation meter. And you could probably get financing Debbie, I'm pretty sure. And most of the citizens that live in Kure Beach could get financing if they want."
He said, "I'm not saying it's not picking and choosing. That's what every council does for every financial decision is they incentivise or don't incentivise actions. That's exactly what our job is. I'm not saying that I'm right. I'm saying I got elected and I'm doing what I think is right. I've talked to a lot of people in Town about this issue and when this came up and we've talked about it people were very positive about the fact that Council's are looking over the fixed income and senior citizens in our Town and focused on the long term implications of water usage in the Town" and, "We set up the pricing structure for those two reasons. To look out for the fixed income senior citizens or anyone else on fixed incomes... and to look at the long term implications of the aquifer for Kure Beach."
Bloszinsky said, "Our water is most stressed during this period of the year when people want to irrigate, when our many motels are full along the beach. We have tremendous demand on our water. So just opening up the gates" isn't a good idea.
Elliott explained, "I just want to say my water usage will not change but I'm going to be supporting an incredible amount of your cost and I'm being penalized. If I got an irrigation meter, my use of water wouldn't change. We have a philosophical difference and I appreciate you listening."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey under natural conditions, the seaward movement of freshwater prevents saltwater from encroaching coastal aquifers, and the interface between freshwater and saltwater is maintained near the coast or far below land surface. This interface is actually a diffuse zone in which freshwater and saltwater mix, and is referred to as the zone of dispersion (or transition zone). Ground-water pumping can reduce freshwater flow toward coastal discharge areas and cause saltwater to be drawn toward the freshwater zones of the aquifer. Saltwater intrusion decreases freshwater storage in the aquifers, and, in extreme cases, can result in the abandonment of supply wells. Saltwater intrusion occurs by many mechanisms, including lateral encroachment from coastal waters and vertical upconing near discharging wells.
Following the meeting, Heglar explained, "I briefly mentioned the health of the Aquifer which supplies the town – but would like to take a minute to expand on that issue. In my opinion, the largest single risk to our community’s wellbeing is not Hurricanes, but rather the possible intrusion by salt water into the town’s aquifer. With all of our wells being less than ½ mile from the Atlantic Ocean – rapid increasing of the withdrawal of water from the Aquifer increases the risk of this occurring. Were this to occur – the town would face a significant financial impact – requiring either de-salination systems or connection to the Cape Fear Public Utility [Authority]. While it is unknown how susceptible the Castle Hayne Aquifer is to this issue – adopting policies and pricing structures that drive conservation is the prudent thing to do regarding this issue."
In 2006 the neighboring Town of Carolina Beach hired Groundwater Management Associates, Inc. to conduct a study of the aquifer system serving the Town's water system via a number of well sites.
According to that study which focused on the Castle Hayne and Peedee Aquifers, saltwater intrusion was recognized in the Carolina Beach wellfield, and chloride concentrations in some wells were close to the secondary drinking water standard of 250 mg/L. GMA identified a correlation between high pumping rates and increased concentrations in chloride (GMA, 2007). This correlation often suggests that an additional mechanism for saltwater intrusion may include upconing (vertical intrusion) from deeper aquifer zones, in addition to lateral intrusion. The hydrogeologic framework study developed by GMA, along with chloride sampling in the wellfield, indicated that the Cape Fear River was most likely a source of brackish recharge in the southwestern portion of the wellfield. Past and recent dredging activities may be related to saltwater intrusion at Carolina Beach by enhancing the hydraulic connection between the Cape Fear River and the underlying aquifers. (GMA 2007).