Delivering Water System Excellence

Brunswick County builds up its staff and its distribution system en route to consecutive string of state honors.
Delivering Water System Excellence
Jerry Pierce, director of Public Utilities for Brunswick County, North Carolina, in the shop with the utility’s 2014 Vac-Con jet/vac truck. (Photography by Alan Cradick)

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North Carolina’s Brunswick County borders the Atlantic Ocean. It has 46 miles of coastline, several barrier islands and an area of 1,050 square miles — the fourth-largest county in the state.

It was named for the colonial port of Brunswick Town, now historic ruins.

Brunswick County Public Utilities provides both water distribution and wastewater collections for this extended area, and they do it extremely well. For three years running, BCPU has been recognized as Large Distribution System of the Year by the North Carolina Section of the American Water Works and Water Environment associations. And they’re on track to extend their hat trick in 2016.

“By ‘large system,’ the AWWA means water systems with at least 500 miles of pipe,” explains Jerry Pierce, director of Public Utilities. “It’s a voluntary participation program, but most of the large systems in the state have signed on. So we’re really proud to have gotten this recognition.”

“And our system’s been growing,” adds John Nichols, assistant director for BCPU. “We take on new customers every year, plus we’ve taken over several smaller systems in the county and brought them up to our higher standards.”

Those standards are ultimately set by the NC AWWA/WEA. The utility has met those standards since first signing on in 2013, winning awards every year. The work leading to this success began much earlier, in 2003, when serious renovation efforts began and BCPU built the county’s first wastewater treatment plant.

Lay of the land

The highest point in Brunswick County is 75 feet above sea level. It slopes downward from there to the Atlantic. Within BCPU’s service area, the elevation change is 64 feet. To the west are the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Geologically, most of the county is classified as a coastal plain.

Some of the county’s drinking water is drawn directly from the Cape Fear River. Its headwaters are 220 miles to the northwest, near Greensboro, North Carolina. It has a seasonally varying discharge that averages 3,885 cfs, a supply that offsets demand on the aquifer. This source is purchased from the Lower Cape Fear Water Authority, which provides some of the initial processing.

Unfortunately, Cape Fear is a black water river. With a deep and slow-moving channel, and its course through forests and wetlands, it picks up tannins from decaying vegetation and takes on a coffee-colored appearance. With standard pre- and post-processing, the tannins can be easily removed using anion resin filters. This is done at BCPU’s 24 mgd Northwest Water Treatment Plant located in Northwest, North Carolina.

The remainder of their water is drawn from 15 wells tapped into the Castle Hayne aquifer at a depth of 175 feet. This water is processed by the 211 Treatment Plant near St. James, North Carolina. The 211 Water Treatment Plant is permitted for 6 mgd, but was designed to process up to 7 mgd.
“That’s some pretty good water,” Pierce says. “By comparison, what they get near the beach communities suffers from saltwater intrusion. Castle Hayne is hard water, but the wells are 3 miles from the coast, so at least it’s fresh.”

Within the county borders are 847 square miles of land and 203 square miles of water. Major access to the Atlantic is provided by the Brunswick and Cape Fear rivers, but hundreds of smaller streams weave between small lakes and wetlands.

“Yeah, it’s really kind of flat around here,” notes Pierce. “Not much chance to use gravity without things backing up. But for distribution, we can get by with smaller pumps and a lot less electricity running them.”

Smart meters

“We started installing Sensus AMIs in 2008,” Nichols says. “We’ve got about 46,000 meters in our system, and we’ve been putting in close to 7,000 each year. Another 6,000 to go and that project will be done. These AMIs have been a really significant factor in our AWWA awards.”

The AMIs are sensitive enough to pick up leaks, water running at strange times and other anomalies that dictate sending a crew to take a look. The Sensus software can be set to detect at any threshold and provides a system status report daily.

“We look at that report first thing in the morning,” says Nichols. “Any meter that gets flagged, we make contact with that customer and start looking for a solution. We can get a crew out there same day in most cases.”

Water savings from the AMIs haven’t significantly reduced BCPU’s total system demand. But when a customer is informed about a leak, they’re almost always grateful and cooperative — once they get past the initial surprise that such small leaks can be remotely detected. They appreciate BCPU’s help saving money on their water bills.

At some point in the future, these AMIs will allow customers to log into a BCPU portal and access data about their household water use patterns. Reductions in residential water use are already being seen, and when the portal goes live more is expected.

Dealing with growth

Brunswick County’s population has been growing by more than 40 percent between each of the last four censuses, and will likely match that rate in 2020. Nichols notes that “the latest chamber of commerce figures say we’re adding about 3,500 people each year.”

When new development goes in, water infrastructure is the responsibility of the developers, and subject to inspection and approval. BCPU has extended lines as needed to accommodate this growth. “We refined and quantified our materials specs and design standards in 2010,” notes Pierce. “That’s eliminated a lot of problems with new builds.”

BCPU has two water treatment plants with a total capacity of 30 mgd. Demand averages 13.56 mgd, and the peak to date was 25.99 mgd. That’s a lot of excess capacity, but BCPU is planning ahead for growth. Likewise with wastewater: Six treatment plants have been built with a total capacity of 10.855 mgd. They’ve been averaging 5.76 mgd with a 7.42 mgd peak.

“We’ve been in the top 30 U.S. counties for growth over the last 10 years,” Pierce says. “Golf is really big here. It’s one of the few places in the country where you can play pretty much all year-round. That’s been driving some of our growth.”

Growth inevitably means an increase in demand for water. That’s been kept to a minimum by customer education about household water use via media, bill inserts and the BCPU website.

Any new builds are required to use water-saving fixtures.

Earning the hat trick

One of the key factors in BCPU’s success is the career ladder program instituted in 2006. It encourages employees to seek additional training and certification, and has increased the knowledge and licensure level of staff, Pierce says. It’s also led to improved morale and employee retention.

“We’ve got 18 licensed mechanics on our distribution crew,” Nichols says. “In most utilities you might have a few. That creates an atmosphere of professionalism, creativity and dedication that really improves our organization.”

Much of the training is through NC AWWA, with testing by the operations board. Half of BCPU’s team holds the highest level of licensure available in the state. Crew members are cross-trained in all aspects of distribution, so there’s always someone on site who can do the job.

BCPU inspects 10 percent of their wastewater collections system annually, along with their valve inspection and testing program. They also inspect backflow prevention devices annually, as required by the state, providing options and assistance with repairs.

For one month every year the entire distribution system is flushed with chlorine. “That helps maintain our high water quality,” Pierce says. “And since we have to flush all parts of our system, if there are any problems they’ll show up during this process.”

Nichols also credits the operations board for backing the utility in whatever they’re trying to do. One individual he notes specifically is David Sandifer, who was chairman in 2000 when the program started.

“It was his vision that shaped what we’ve done, and showed us how to get those awards. He was a major inspiration to all of us.”

Award-winning collections system

In 2015, Brunswick County Public Utilities was recognized as Medium Collection System of the Year by the North Carolina American Water Works Association/Water Environment Association.

BCPU’s task is made more difficult by the types of lines required for a relatively flat coastal plain. Those include standard gravity lines, vacuum-assisted gravity lines and low-pressure mains. Successful management and operation of this complex system was a factor in their NC AWWA/WEA award.

As with most collections systems, solving FOG problems is one key to success. BCPU’s website provides a one-page brochure for customers that explains the problem, and lists what they should or should not put down the drain. The Grease Goblin mascot figures prominently, next to a photo of a frying pan with “grease” written in grease.

“FOG is less a problem here than in some other systems,” says BCPU Director Jerry Pierce. “We have one dedicated employee who does nothing but grease trap inspections. There’s a lot of restaurants in the county, and compliance has been good.”

Another part of BCPU’s success stems from their extensive effluent recycling program. Reclaimed water is used for irrigation, flushing pipes, dust suppression and other non-potable applications. What’s left over is used to recharge the Castle Hayne aquifer under the county’s southeast coastal plain.

There’s a small amount of BCPU wastewater treatment plant effluent discharged into the watershed, but it’s closely monitored for contaminant levels. Some contaminants enter the watershed from failing septic systems in remote areas, but BCPU is adding those systems to their network as collection lines are extended.

Green Swamp Preserve, a 27.22-square-mile protected wetland and pine forest, is near the center of Brunswick County. Many smaller streams feed into it. BCPU is only peripherally involved in its management, but works as a partner with The Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups to ensure continued water quality.


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