Raleigh sits nearly atop the Neuse River. It’s the largest presence in the river’s basin, drawing out drinking water for close to half a million people before the brown-green Neuse falls from the Falls Lake Dam and past a string of smaller cities downstream on the way to the coast.
The Southeast’s rainy climate has ensured a generally steady flow down the river – enough to make it seem like an unlimited resource.
But the renewed population growth of the Research Triangle is changing the equation, and Raleigh – facing the limit of its legal water supply within 15 years – is looking to extend its reach.
With an agreement struck last month, the city and neighboring Johnston County will consider extending Raleigh’s pipes across the county line, and perhaps as far as Wayne and Wilson counties.
The partnership’s still in its exploratory stages, and it’s only one of several options for the city and county alike. But the potential trade is clear: Raleigh may help build new intakes and treatment plants on the Neuse River, offering its financial clout for access to the Neuse in Johnston County, where higher flows yield more drinking water.
“In the old days, each city could kind of build its own reservoir, have its own water treatment plant, do its own thing,” said Bill Holman, state director of The Conservation Fund and former secretary of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.
“Now, everything Raleigh does will affect its downstream neighbors.”
Raleigh has long sought new supplies for its water-sharing alliance, which includes the growth towns of Garner, Wake Forest, Rolesville, Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon.
By 2030, the city and its partners expect to max out their share of the public waters, which are governed by state and federal rules, according to Kenneth Waldroup, assistant director of public utilities for the city.
Raleigh could partially address the problem by building new reservoirs to store excess water from storms, but that’s not easy to do here. A $263 million plan to dam the Little River, a tributary of the Neuse, would have provided plenty of water and storage but has been slowed by regulation and protests.
The most promising replacement for the stymied project is Falls Lake, also part of the Neuse and already the city’s primary supply. If the federal government obliges the city’s recent request for a larger share of the huge lake’s water, Raleigh could be supplied for decades to come, Waldroup said.
However, Raleigh also is looking west, to Jordan Lake, and southeast, toward Johnston County.
“Water resource planning is a multipronged process,” Waldroup said. “You try many things at once.”
Johnston and Wake counties share the Neuse, but the river grows larger in Johnston, renewing itself with the water that flows off bordering fields and forests along its route toward Smithfield.
Simply put: “There’s more flow in the river in Johnston County than Wake County,” said Chandra Coats, public utilities director for Johnston County.
Raleigh could build an intake on the river in Johnston County, piping some of Johnston’s extra volume back toward the city each day. Raleigh also could help build a reservoir and “skim” the Neuse during high water.
Or the two governments could team up to bring water from a separate source – the Buckhorn Reservoir in Wilson County, according to a plan for preliminary research.
There’s enough water, Coats said, that some or all of this could happen without limiting Johnston’s own growth.
In exchange, the county sees a chance to ease the financing of its water needs. Water infrastructure – particularly storage in reservoirs and quarries – is tremendously expensive, and Johnston could piggyback on pipelines, treatment plants and reservoirs built by Raleigh and its partners.
“They’re a larger utility that could share in additional expenditures,” Coats said.
The early stages
All this talk is in its earliest phases. Raleigh only approved the interlocal plan to explore the topic in October, and a preliminary report by the consultant firm Hazen & Sawyer likely won’t appear for another month.
That report will essentially show the governments what they’re working with. The two governments want to see how much water they might take from the Neuse and Buckhorn Reservoir and how those sums would be affected by new ecological regulations under consideration at the state level.
Independently, the two governments also will be looking for ways to maximize their shares of the river. In Raleigh, that includes the possibility of reintroducing treated wastewater to the drinking water system, although that wouldn’t be done without a thorough public airing, Waldroup said.
Holman, of the Conservation Fund, thinks the state should usually have “plenty of water to go around,” if only it’s used wisely. For Raleigh, he said, the greatest challenge may be to provide for a growing population without drawing the ire of downstream communities that depend on the river, too.
North Carolina also must prepare for more periods of drought, he said, which may be worsened by regional climate change. With all these factors and demands converging, he said, Raleigh and Johnston County’s conversation will be only one of many.
“If we use our heads, and put in place the policies and the financing that does reduce demand and matches the right water for the right purpose, and create more storage, we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “But that won’t happen by accident.”