Wilmington Sewers from A-Z

Wilmington, NC – Welcome to the WHQR whirlwind tour of the Wilmington sewer system. We'll be covering all the biggies: the Northeast Interceptor and the Special Order of Consent, the moratorium and the consolidation. More on all that in a moment. We start, simply enough, with what goes where underground.

Flush a toilet in New Hanover County, and there are only a few options for where that water ends up. If you're up on the northern portion of the county, or around Masonboro, and you're not hooked up to a sewer line, then it's headed straight to your septic tank. We hope. South of Snow's Cut? You've got your own wastewater system, which means you've probably just gotten this far out of schadenfreude.

But if you're in the bulk of the county, that toilet water is on a one-way journey to either the Northside or Southside treatment plant. In general, the northern end of the county feeds into the Northside plant, and the southern part feeds the Southside. Simple enough. Until you get to the northeast part of the county. Which is why we've enlisted New Hanover County Manager Bruce Shell to serve as something of a sewer tour guide. Mr. Shell, please tell us what's happening in the northeast:

You have sewer that comes down from Porters Neck and Bay Shore and Middlesound, down through Mayfaire are, and that feeds the Northeast Interceptor. You have sewer from UNCW that comes across and feeds in the Northeast Interceptor. That's puzzling for some people, because we've got flow coming from the northeastern part of the county that comes down into the Southside plant.

Enter the Northeast Interceptor. The troubled, leak prone, spill-prone, oft-damaged NEI.

For a moment, permit me to complain about the name, which I personally hate. If you ask me, interceptor sounds more like some new Air Force technology than a two-foot-wide sewer pipe. Which is what it is.

Terminology aside, it's time to talk about moratoriums. This is how the state's Department of Water Quality tries to slam the door on new sewage while the city works to repair the, say it with me now, troubled, leak prone, spill-prone, oft-damaged NEI.

This all started last spring when the state banned new permits for sewer connections along the line. The moratorium didn't shut down everything: small projects which don't add much waste, like a single house or office, were never banned.

What the state did put a halt to were permits for any new sewer extensions. Bruce Shell?

What that means is where someone has to go out there and create new sewer lines for say a subdivision to tie into. And those types of things generate a lot of flow.

So twelve months ago that connection ban goes into effect. But flows keep increasing on the line. So earlier this month the Division of Water Quality ups the ante: No new connections. Period.

That little d tente lasted 13 days, until the week before last, when the state and local powers came up with their current compromise. Not a shut door this time, but a ceiling. Shell explains that sewer flows in the NEI area can grow a bit, if the city gets that increase out of that pipeline and over to its Northside plant.

There's 120,000 gallons of capacity available to the Northeast Interceptor, and that's broken out by 60,000 residential and 60,000 commercial. The northern side of the county will also have 120,000-gallon capacity, and that will be separated between the city and New Hanover County.

Did you catch that? The NEI's problems have spilled (ha ha) over to the rest of northern New Hanover County, where new development must also duck its head under a 120-thousand gallon cap, at least for the next year, until the city can finish up the most pressing repairs to the NEI.

Wilmington may be able to gain a little wiggle room if it can convince the state to let it send more sewage to the Northside treatment plant. Which would be a neat juggling act, since the Northside plant is currently undergoing its own massive construction job to double its capacity.

And you over there on the Southside - don't think you're getting off scot-free. You may have missed it, but the state hit you guys with a little moratorium of your own recently. Here's Shell's explaination:

When the capacity of a plant reaches 80% -- [at the Southside Plant] that's 12-million gallon-a-day times 80%, that's 9.6 million gallons -- When that plant's average flow reached 9.7, the state sent the city of Wilmington a letter saying, We're going to put a moratorium on because we don't have a plan from you on how you're going to expand this plant. That was a little surprising, to be honest with you. But the city, with county support, is sending in a plan in June for that. And the state was satisfied that that was going to happen and they lifted the moratorium.

The southside sewer moratorium: April to May, 2007. We hardly knew ye.

Okay, we talked about where our waste is coming from, and where it's going. How about who's overseeing it all? That's where things get hairy, again.

When you talk about wastewater, you quickly find Wilmington, New Hanover County, and Wrightsville Beach all tied up together in a web of ownership, maintenance, operating agreements, and permitting authority.

This should get a little clearer down the line when the city and county consolidate their sewer infrastructure into one authority. Right now they're in the negotiating phase. Bruce Shell, what are they negotiating?

You've got permitting issues, you've got employees, you've got assets and liabilities, you have debt. So we're looking at issues like that to do what's most cost-beneficial.

Think of it like a divorce in reverse with a dozen elected officials involved.

The City Council and County Commissioners will be considering the creation of an authority in June. And that will be the foundation for moving this thing forward, even though a lot of work has gone one behind the scenes.

Hope that helped make sense of our local sewer follies, because if you ask Shell, this soap opera should be running a good while longer.

I suspect sewer will be the top of our list probably for at least for the next year, probably year and a half.

That's a year and a half to do the most pressing repairs to the NEI, finish the expansion of the Northside Treatment Plant, and start planning for an expansion of the Southside Plant.

And that typically takes several years to accomplish. And it won't be many years after that's accomplished, with the way our community's growing, that we'll need to look at the expansion of the Northside again. So I think sewer's going to be an issue for this community for the next few decades.

Decades. Well, that should give us all time to get clear on the details.

Web Exclusive: WHQR's interview with County Manager Bruce Shell on the sewers