ENC Towns Cope With Water And Sewer Challenges After Florence

Jan 31, 2019

Trenton's old wastewater treatment plant continues to operate, despite needing repairs to continue serving residents until later this year, when the new plant opens.
Credit Valerie Crowder

About 300 people resided in the town of Trenton before Hurricane Florence brought historic flooding to Jones County four months ago.  More than 100 homes in the town are now vacant, and only six businesses are open, said Mayor Darlene Spivey.

“BB&T’s still closed. A couple of the gift shops aren’t going to reopen. One of the dress shops is not going to reopen,” Spivey said. “But we’ve got a new coffee shop. We’ve got a new HVAC company.”

Fewer people are eating and shopping downtown because the county courthouse, which attracted a lot of people downtown, also remains closed for repairs, Spivey said.

The loss of businesses, residents and visitors has cut the county seat’s monthly revenues in half, and this is making it more difficult to fund $177,000 worth of storm damages to its old wastewater treatment facility, which had been slated to close later this year, Spivey said.

“We’ve got to go back and fix what was damaged, and then move forward into the new system,” she said. “And unfortunately, we’re having heartburn over spending that much money on a system we’re only going to use six or eight months.”

Before Hurricane Florence hit, a new wastewater treatment facility had been scheduled to open in late summer or early fall. State lawmakers allocated $250,000 in this year’s budget to finance the new project.  

“Fortunately the system will not be in a floodplain, this time. So that will help. We’ve been discharging into the river. We will no longer do that,” Spivey said.  “There’s a lot of issues that we’ve corrected.”

To cover some of the repair costs to the town’s old sewage treatment plant, it’s received a $75,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps rural, economically distressed communities across the state, Spivey said. The town is seeking additional outside help to fund the remaining $100,000 in damages.  

“To continue the service and the quality that people are used to and [that] DEWQ requires, we have to fix what’s there,” she said.

As towns in Eastern North Carolina struggle to pay for maintenance to aging water and sewer infrastructure, flooding from hurricanes places an additional strain on these vital public works systems. State environmental officials are working with local communities in the region to find ways to consolidate their resources and strengthen resiliency, said Michael Regan, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

At a roundtable discussion in Lenoir County last week, Regan spoke with several local leaders, including Spivey, about their water and sewer infrastructure challenges following the hurricane.

“Whether it’s because the citizens are moving away and not coming back or a hurricane hits, damages homes and forces people away,” Regan said. “The loss of that tax base and tax revenue, creates a scenario where they don’t have the money for the upkeep.” 

To reduce maintenance and operations costs, communities could invest public infrastructure recovery dollars into merging their water and sewer systems with other local governments, Regan said.  “One of the options is taking the new leveraged dollars, pooling that money together and creating a more stronger, resilient, regionalized system that may be better suited for the future.” 

The Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority supplies 15 million gallons of drinking water a day to eight different towns and communities in Lenoir and Pitt Counties.  “Each system still has to maintain its own pipes,” Steven Miller, assistant public works director for the city of Kinston, which is one of the member entities. “I think merging actually infrastructure systems is more difficult than either having a source to provide drinking water or to provide treatment to wastewater.”  

The town’s budget to maintain its wastewater system falls $400,000 short of what’s needed to upgrade aging pipes within their life cycle.  

“Hundreds of miles of pipe that are over 50 years old, that we need to be looking at somehow replacing them or bringing them up to date, so they don’t leak and we don’t have spills. And at the same time, still trying to keep our customer bills down low,” Miller said.

He says the town’s stagnant population – which has declined since 1990 – limits revenues that the town needs to maintain its water pipes and sewer infrastructure.  Frequent flooding drives up these costs, Miller said. Hurricane Florence caused more than $3.5 million in damages to the city’s water and sewer systems, and that’s not the only time they’ve flooded recently.  

“Actually we had a lot of the same impacts that we had during Hurricane Matthew, lift stations that we had in low-lying areas, flooded again, so within five years we’ve had the same infrastructure flood multiple times. We’re working real hard with FEMA, so we don’t have those continued impacts.”