OWASA started up its water treatment plant Saturday night, hours after water service was mostly restored to about 80,000 residents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Residents and businesses, who spent a day-and-a-half without running water, were encouraged to continue limiting their use because supplies remain low.
“We regret that the community has been challenged in this way the last day and a half,” said Ed Kerwin, executive director of the regional water utility. “We very much appreciate everyone’s cooperation following the do-not-use directive and very pleased to report we have made substantial progress in the last 24 hours and able to confidently say our water is safe.”
Orange County officials announced the water was safe again Saturday afternoon.
“All of the tests came back safe earlier this afternoon,” Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger said in a news release. “In light of these results, Orange County Health Department is rescinding the Do Not Use order.”
The Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant was restarted at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The plant was shut down Thursday after a higher than normal amount of fluoride was added to water at the plant. The over-fluoridated water did not make it into the pipe system that serves customers, OWASA officials said.
They have temporarily suspended the addition of fluoride to the area’s drinking water, pending a review of the incident. OWASA officials are investigating the overfeed and will make a report to the community at a later date, they said.
The OWASA board of directors meets at 6 p.m. Thursday at 400 Jones Ferry Road, and the meeting is open to the public, but Kerwin said they would not likely have the after-action report finalized by then.
Officials were hopeful Saturday but couldn’t say with certainty that things would be “business as normal” by Monday.
“Based on everything we know today, we don’t anticipate any potential problems,” Kerwin said. “Of course, we also didn’t appreciate one of the worst water main breaks we have experienced in 40 years of service to the community.”
Restaurants and hotels were told at 2 p.m. they were able to reopen, Bridger said.
“The only exception to (the do not use/drink order was) for the Apartments at Midtown 501,” she said. “There are approximately 250 residents that are still under a boil water advisory and we will notify them once their water is safe to drink.”
A broken water main on Foxcroft Drive that triggered the water emergency has been repaired and service restored to the roughly 250 customers there.
“We will know by 7 a.m. Sunday if the boil water advisory can be rescinded,” Kerwin said.
The broken main leaked up to 1.5 million gallons of water a day after the utility, Orange Water and Sewer Authority, began getting water from Durham following a fluoride overfeed at its Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant. Fluoride is added to water to prevent tooth decay but can be harmful in excessive amounts.
The utility kept the over-fluoridated water from reaching its distribution network, and by Friday Durham was sending OWASA water at the rate of about 7 million gallons a day, said Vicki Westbrook, the city’s assistant director of water management. Chatham County also began sending water, and OWASA said it was working with Hillsborough as well. The water coming from Chatham County was discontinued Saturday evening.
Still, with the Jones Ferry Road plant offline, water levels in OWASA’s storage tanks fell. And then on Friday, the water main broke off Dobbins Drive, along U.S. 15-501 near the old Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina headquarters.
The loss of 1.5 million gallons from the break torpedoed water pressure, a health concern because without pressure, water doesn’t flow and harmful bacteria can more easily grow in the mains. The water loss also meant there wasn’t enough supply.
The utility began working to restore the treatment plant to normal operation and to repair the water main. But the plant’s output required testing before the utility could safely advise customers to use their water again.
“We appreciate the cooperation of the community during this incident, and we are grateful to our partners at the City of Durham, Chatham County and the town of Hillsborough for their assistance,” Kerwin said.
The water emergency sent residents to friends and hotels outside the affected area. UNC told students living on campus, where 100 portable toilets had been set up, to leave if they could until the water was safe to use again.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents, in addition to those on campus, were told to use bottled water for all purposes, including flushing toilets.
County officials said 33 pallets of bottled water were being distributed per hour Saturday morning across southern Orange County.
Four distribution sites were set up in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to give residents bottled water that remained open until 6 p.m. Saturday. Officials said they were did not know how many organizations or volunteers participated during the water shortage but would compile the information for a report.
“There were a lot of moving parts behind the scene and one of the great things about working and being involved in Orange County,” Bridger said. “Probably one of the most common phone calls we got was, ‘How can I help?’”
OWASA and the county were not sure of the financial impact of the water shortage.
Staff writer Ray Gronberg contributed to this story.
Best ways to save water
▪ Take short showers (less than 3 minutes); shower instead of taking a bath, which uses more water.
▪ Delay washing clothes until normal water use is allowed.
▪ Turn off water when not in use.
▪ Wash only full loads of dishes.
▪ Use paper plates and plastic utensils to reduce dishwashing.
▪ Check for and fix any leaks in toilets, faucets, hoses, pipes.
▪ Flush toilets only when necessary.
▪ Defer washing vehicles with drinking water.