by Jerry B. Simpson
If you are old enough to remember comedian Joan Rivers, you will recall her classic opening line, “Can we talk?” A lot has been said in the news and on social media in recent weeks concerning the Board of County Commissioners’ decision to raise utility rates and I, like Joan, would like to set the record straight on the logic behind this decision.
Having a historical perspective regarding water in Union County is necessary to understand where we are now. Union County’s population surge began in the 1970s. From 1970 to 1990, the population increased by 40% from 55,000 to 85,000 people. Similar trends were occurring in other counties surrounding Charlotte as well as throughout the state in the Triad, Raleigh and coastal counties.
Half of Union County’s 14 municipalities have only gained incorporation since 1994. The majority of the growth since 1990, nearly 150,000 people, has been through in-migration. People move to a state, a county, a community for a variety of reasons. Low taxes, cost of housing and living, educational and/or economic opportunities, climate, or in many cases to follow family.
In response to this growth and in anticipation that it would continue, Union County entered into a partnership with Lancaster County, S.C. to build a water treatment facility along the Catawba River near Van Wyck. This plant went on line in 1993 producing 12MGD (million gallons per day), was increased to 18MGD in 1998 and to 36MGD in 2003. With the exception of 3MGD from Anson County, this has served as the primary source of water for most of Union County. The City of Monroe has its own sources and treatment system.
Critical to this discussion is Union County’s topography. Unlike Robert Redford’s movie, Union County does not have a river that runs through it. Every drop of rain that falls in Union County drains into the Catawba River in South Carolina or the Yadkin-Pee Dee River via the Rocky River which empties into the Pee Dee River in Stanly County. Two-thirds of the county is in the Yadkin basin while one-third empties into the Catawba.
Water use in America is regulated by federal and state governments. In order to remove water from a basin, it must be permitted by the authorities. In addition, that water must be returned to that same basin except through an agreement known as an Interbasin Transfer.
After numerous lawsuits over who controls the water across state lines, Union County has a grandfathered 5MGD from the Catawba River. Union County removes 18MGD from the Catawba (half of 36MGD-half goes to Lancaster County), and uses it in both basins. 5MGD can remain in the Yadkin while any additional use must be returned to the Catawba.
At this point we have maximized the use of our current capacity from the Catawba in the Yadkin basin.
The need for a Yadkin basin water source is not a new idea. This need has been a part of the discussions of numerous boards since the early 2000s. As a commissioner, I consider it my responsibility to protect the public health and safety of Union County citizens and provide the necessary infrastructure to ensure economic security. With that in mind, and beginning with my election in 2010, the board of county commissioners began efforts to secure a permanent water supply for that portion of Union County in the Yadkin basin.
After nearly nine years, hundreds of hours of consultant, staff and engineering time, several lawsuits and several million dollars, that source is nearing reality. An Interbasin Transfer from the Yadkin via Lake Tillery of 23MGD is approved and will supply expected water needs through 2050. The necessary permitting (with the exception of the lake use permit pending through Duke Energy) planning, design and funding mechanisms are in place.
Unfortunately, as we near the reality of this project, cost has become an issue. We find ourselves in a hyper construction economy and cost estimates have risen significantly. At a cost of $300 million, it is necessary to raise user rates significantly, 15.5% for the next two years to fund the project. From 2007 to 2017, the county’s water and sewer utility operated with no increase in rates. Beginning in 2017, rates were increased 6.5% annually in anticipation of the cost to maintain and expand the system primarily expansion of the Catawba plant, improvements to the 12 Mile Creek Waste Treatment Facility and construction of the Yadkin plant.
I take no pleasure in these increases, understanding it will create a financial hardship for some, and were there a viable alternative I would certainly pursue it. With the necessary increases, Union County rates will still be consistent with other counties and municipalities in the region. A typical water user (5,000gal/mo) in Union County will see an increase in their water bill from $26.10/month to $30.10/month in 2020 and to $34.76/month beginning in 2021. Contrast that with the cost of cell phone service or cable.
Some want to frame this issue as another east vs west conflict. Those in the west who have county water will argue as to why they should be asked to pay for expansion designed to benefit eastern Union County. Those in the east are being led to believe this is all about fueling growth and high density development in the west and they will never benefit. Do a fact check, no Environmental Impact Statement has been done, no property has been sited or purchased, and no funding has been approved for the construction of a Lower Crooked Creek sewer plant! Sewer drives growth!
From 1999 to 2007, Union County built 22 new school facilities primarily in the western edge of the county at a cost of $490 million. Add in the interest on the debt and the cost was well over $750 million. Those schools, and the cost of their operation, were bore by all citizens in Union County – east and west, newcomers and longtime residents, not just those whose children attended them.
Water quality and quantity have long been an issue throughout Union County and the Yadkin Water Treatment Facility is my effort along with others to solve this problem for generations to come. This was, is, and continues to be the most reliable, efficient and cost-effective option for a safe and secure water supply for all of Union County. With this source firmly in hand we can begin to develop a means of delivery to all who want and need water cost effectively.
There are always those who operate from a scarcity mentality. They believe there are a limited number of slices of the pie and promote the idea that some will benefit while others will get left out. All the stories about hidden agendas, threats on commissioners, staff corruption, developer payouts, polluted water, are nothing but fear tactics designed to influence public opinion.
Union County continues to be a great place to live, work and raise a family despite its growing pains. As your commissioner, I will continue to be more concerned about what is right than being right. The Yadkin project is the right thing to do for the long-term success of Union County.
Jerry B. Simpson chairs the Union County Board of County Commissioners