RALEIGH — Thirteen months after the City Council unanimously agreed to spend $86 million to pipe treated wastewater for irrigation across the city, several former supporters of the project are now questioning whether it is a wise use of taxpayers' money.
Last week Councilmen Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder asked the council to delay approving a $2.35 million contract related to the project. Stephenson said he objects to having all Raleigh water customers pay for a system that will be used by a limited number of large institutional and industrial users, such as golf courses, hospitals and universities.
"Anybody in Raleigh, unless they're tied to an institution or industry, will never really have an opportunity to take advantage" of the system, Stephenson said.
A better idea, he said, would be to offer incentives to all customers that would encourage them to use rain barrels, cisterns and other conservation approaches.
Stephenson's argument has baffled supporters and potential users of the reuse system, who argue that Raleigh's recent water crisis has made the project even more necessary. Using wastewater for irrigation, they argue, means more water in Falls Lake can be used for drinking and other essential uses.
"I do think it's a good idea considering we just went through a drought of major significance," Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said.
Baldwin said the fact that the reuse system is unlikely to reach most residential water customers is not a reason to not build it.
"Everybody who lives here pays for investments and infrastructure that goes into the city," she said. "That's the way it should be."
The city's Public Works Committee, which Stephenson heads, will discuss the reuse system at its meeting Wednesday.
The reuse master plan calls for a network of 145 miles of pipe to run from Raleigh's wastewater-treatment plants to major water users such as the Walnut Creek Amphitheater, the Raleigh Country Club and N.C. State's Centennial Campus.
Raleigh would pay to run the system up to a customer's property line. The customer would pay to tie into the system.
The Public Utilities Department has recommended that the treated wastewater, which can be used for irrigation and other non-potable uses, cost half the price of Raleigh drinking water.
Cutting peak demand
Robert Massengill, an assistant public utilities director, said the reuse system will help reduce the peak water demand on Raleigh's system, which will delay the need to make costly capacity improvements to the system. The city estimates the reuse system could reduce Raleigh's average drinking water consumption by more than 7 million gallons a day during the summer, when outside watering is at its highest.
Raleigh water customers currently consume, on average, about 50 million gallons a day in summer.
The reuse system will also reduce the amount of nutrients, such as nitrogen, that Raleigh discharges into the Neuse River, Massengill said. Raleigh currently dumps all its treated wastewater into the Neuse.
The master plan the council adopted last year calls for the reuse system to be built in phases over 30 years, with $23 million being spent over the next five years.
Stephenson said his review of the project will include finding out how much has been invested in building the reuse system to date.
The city determined where its reuse distribution system would go by gauging the interest of its largest commercial and institutional water customers.
One of the reuse system's potential customers, the Raleigh Country Club, expressed surprise Monday that some officials were now having second thoughts.
"I'm shocked," said Christian Anastasiadis, the club's chief operating officer. "It is the smart thing to do."
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