Between 1932 and 1976, UNC was the primary water/sewer utility for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. In 1976, the Church Commission, established by the N.C. General Assembly, recommended the university divest itself of all utility services. Later that year, OWASA, through a purchase and sale agreement with UNC, was formed as the single water and sewer authority for southern Orange County.
Prior to the divestiture, the university initiated a feasibility study to identify the best options for expanding the long-range water capacity for the growing community. It identified three options: build a new reservoir, depend on the proposed Jordan Reservoir, or expand University Lake. Local experts preferred the new reservoir option for financial and water quality reasons, and Cane Creek was identified as the best option for the new reservoir.
Chapel Hill’s need for additional water was so great by 1976 that the university required OWASA to continue the planning work they had started on the new reservoir. Opposition to the reservoir was so great that the landowners formed the Cane Creek Conservation Authority to take their battle to the courts, starting with an injunction against the trespass of the OWASA land surveyors. One month after OWASA took ownership of the utility, they filed a civil suit against the local landowners to require that land surveying be allowed to proceed.
That action tied Orange County up in a social and legal, urban vs. rural battle from 1977 through 1987. But by 1988 the reservoir had been built and filled. OWASA spent roughly $3.8 million of rate payer funds to buy 1,474 acres to build the reservoir and protect the surrounding watershed.
From the beginning, protecting water quality has been an unwavering goal of OWASA. In support of that goal, they have acquired additional land around the reservoir thanks to a grant by the Clean Water Trust fund. They have also been granted several conservation easements on private land to protect the watershed. And public access to the reservoir and surrounding lands has been strictly limited as further protection of the relatively pristine quality of the reservoir.
Repairing relations with the Cane Creek neighbors proceeded more slowly than the reservoir construction. But gradually a peace was achieved, only to be disturbed in recent years by issues like forest management and the 2009 proposal by Orange County to locate a leg of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) through OWASA’s property. Many of the neighbors felt then, as well as now, that the trail would violate their rural lifestyle and threaten the quality of water in the reservoir.
I heard those concerns for water quality expressed at the initial county-sponsored meeting on the MST in April and again at the OWASA public meetings in June and August. But I didn’t understand that from the neighbors’ view OWASA was changing a 40-year protective stance on activity at the reservoir until one of the area farmers, whose family has lived in the Cane Creek community for generations, privately expressed his confusion for why OWASA was willing to sacrifice water quality in support of the MST.
I can only respond for myself; I don’t speak for my fellow OWASA board members. A 3-foot trail through the property is not a risk to water quality in my opinion, especially with the conditions that were imposed when the board gave its approval for this new use of the property. I believe that to be true because not one of the community’s many environmental experts has warned against allowing access to the trail.
I personally support the MST project for the same reasons I supported opening the reservoir to bird watching last winter and for adding days to the recreation schedule the year before – because I believe the OWASA rate payers have the right to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the land they helped purchase. And I believe we can offer that opportunity without impinging on water quality or the rural character of the land and its residents.
I remain optimistic that the county will eventually site a trail from Hillsborough to the Haw River using off road trails throughout. And when that happens, I hope the hikers who enjoy the Cane Creek portion of the trail will be properly respectful and grateful for the sacrifice made by the rural community, not just for the trail but also for the clean, abundant water of the reservoir.
Terri Buckner is one of two Orange County appointees to the OWASA Board of Directors. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.