Community partnerships seemed to be the highlight of the Orange Water and Sewer Authority's annual update to the Board of Orange County Commissioners at a Feb. 19 meeting.
The main speaker, OWASA secretary Raymond DuBose, presented OWASA's improvement plans for the upcoming year. One change is the implementation of quarterly check-in meetings between the members of the BOCC and the appointees of the OWASA board. DuBose said this was designed to create greater communication between OWASA and the community it serves.
OWASA's main system improvement for the upcoming year is a new water main assessment and prioritization model. OWASA did not directly address the large-scale water emergency that happened in Chapel Hill in 2017, nor the water main break that happened in November of 2018, but the new assessment system was originally suggested in the wake of the November event.
Each year, OWASA invests about $20 million in capital improvement projects — upgrading pipes, pumps, equipment and more — to increase system resiliency. Nearly 50 percent of customer payments fund these projects, according to Linda Low, OWASA’s communications and community relations officer. These projects would fall under the system improvement plan.
OWASA also announced at the meeting that the sewer construction in the historic Rogers Road area is now expected to be complete by the end of April 2019. Construction began in September 2017, but OWASA encountered a lot of dense rock that affected the timeline of construction, according to DuBose.
DuBose also discussed OWASA’s new strategies for addressing affordability by partnering with community organizations. In the last year, OWASA has worked with the Orange County Family Success Alliance to share conservation outreach materials translated into Spanish, Burmese and Karen.
Mary Tiger, OWASA’s sustainability manager, is now attending the Orange County Local Government Affordable Housing Collaborative's meetings to learn about its initiatives and how OWASA can help.
OWASA is progressing with its Care to Share program, where customers can contribute to the payments of other OWASA customers in need. Donors to this program have the opportunity to make fixed monthly donations or round up their water and sewer bills. In 2018, the program's contributions totaled $7,650.
Agua Vista is an initiative to upgrade OWASA’s water meters to simplify customers' ability to monitor their own water use. OWASA's hope is that this will allow easier leak detection and even decrease greenhouse gas emissions by cutting down vehicle miles and related costs.
OWASA currently serves more than 80,000 people in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Myra Dotson, an OWASA customer who has lived on Orange Grove Road since the 1980s, complained at the meeting that OWASA has been dumping sludge on her neighborhood's soil.
"It is hypocritical for Orange County to have OWASA play any key role in climate change actions because of the polluting activity of OWASA,” she said.
She summarized her complaints by criticizing OWASA's environmental footprint in general.
“If OWASA was actively working on an alternative to poisoning farmland, air, water and food with sludge, then and only then could I really take them seriously regarding any role in curtailing climate change,” she said.
Low said one of OWASA's priorities is educating people in the community on how they can work with OWASA on limiting environmental externalities.
“Water is vital for everything – wellness, business, community services and more," Low said in an email. "Everyone has a role to play in conserving, protecting and sustaining this vital resource!"
OWASA plans to focus more on this aspect of community education and telling people about the comprehensive process of protecting, sourcing, treating and delivering water.
"Meeting the community's needs requires periodic expansion and ongoing rehabilitation of the water, wastewater and reclaimed water systems,” Low said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.