The issues began Thursday afternoon when there was an accidental overfeed of fluoride within the water treatment process at OWASA’s Jones Ferry Road water treatment plant.
OWASA began receiving water from the city of Durham late Thursday afternoon, but the water flow was not high enough to fill water storage tanks to normal levels, resulting in a water shortage.
Friday morning, a break occurred in the water main near Dobbins Drive in Chapel Hill, water in OWASA’s storage tanks dropped to critically low levels and OWASA informed customers to limit use of water to essential purposes only. Soon after, at 11 a.m. on Friday, the Orange County Health Department issued Do Not Drink and Do Not Use directives for OWASA water, and OWASA sent customers an emergency message instructing them to halt all water use immediately.
Because water storage supplies were so low, using water could contaminate the system. OWASA couldn’t guarantee that the water was safe to drink without testing.
During the shortage, OWASA encouraged residents to use bottled water for personal hygiene, cooking and drinking.
The Orange County health director ordered restaurants to close Friday afternoon. Several restaurants said their business was affected.
“It was on Friday, which is you know one of our two busiest days of the week,” said Ashley Cohn, general manager of Mellow Mushroom. “It was more like a Wednesday crowd than a Saturday crowd.”
Cohn said it did not help that students were encouraged by the University to leave the town.
“Every restaurant closed pretty much, and there just weren’t enough people,” she said. “It was like we all stuck our straw in a pack full of soda.”
Linda’s Bar and Grill owner Chris Carini said Linda’s got an order from the health department that said all restaurants must close.
Carini said business was affected by the closures and loss of students on campus, along with the movement of the men’s basketball game out of Chapel Hill.
“We’re talking about a Friday night, in the middle of spring semester, not to mention the loss of the game on Notre Dame, which was a massive game,” he said.
Several grocery and convenience stores ran out of water Friday as residents rushed to stock up. Some people had to drive to Durham or other nearby towns and cities to purchase bottles and jugs of clean water.
“We took a lot of water from our overstock so everyone could come in and get as much as they could,” said Ross Young-Wright, a shift lead at the 1500 E. Franklin St. Walgreens Pharmacy.
Young-Wright said they had to close their bathroom, but other than that, business continued as normal.
Students at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Chapel Hill were excited to be released from school a couple of hours early on Friday.
“I didn’t shower for three days and we had to leave school two hours early, because no bathrooms,” said Emma Kang, an eighth grader at St. Thomas More.
UNC canceled classes around 1 p.m. Friday and encouraged students to leave campus until the water levels returned to normal, according to an Alert Carolina message.
Some students were unsure how long the water crisis would last and tried to prepare for days without being able to shower in dorms or eat in on-campus dining halls.
“One of my friends has a car and we went and got like six cases of bottled water on Friday and kind of just made do with that,” sophomore Kristen Roehrig said. “Then we went to somebody’s house to shower yesterday because their house runs on well water.”
The water main was repaired and tests results showed that water was safe to drink Saturday afternoon. By Saturday evening, the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant resumed operations and OWASA stopped receiving water from Durham and Chatham County.
OWASA posted another statement Sunday to alert customers that all OWASA operations had returned to normal with water storage tanks being full and normal water use being allowed. They are investigating the fluoride overfeed and water line break and plan to report back to the community at a later date.