Opting Out to Fail

When I worked for Wake County, one of my duties was to staff, notate, and organize County Commissioner Sub-Committee meetings. One of the more active committees was one we called the GLUE committee. The Growth Land Use and Environmental subcommittee was one where the issues pressed before them by citizens were of varying urgency and scope. From the debate over dry docking boats near watersheds to future green space bond recommendations, the work of this committee was one that was extremely valuable in a growth market.

Throughout those years sitting in on this committee I did notice one of the more persisting problems facing the county, and that came from gaps in the city sewer and water service lines. These gaps in service, or doughnut holes, as we referred to them , were spaces in the community on the periphery of the city of Raleigh that at one point opted out of water and sewer system service. At the time, the citizens in these communities were content with their existing septic system and didn’t fear the possibility of sprawl. Fast forward 5-10 years and growth communities popped up all around them and City of Raleigh service lines extended to these new planned communities. Knowing that it was more efficient to target growth and extend lines and allow construction where the planning had occurred, the city progressively planned for and paid for its services as growth occurred. Unfortunately, in those enclaves where planning and paying for were bypassed, the possibility of extension was foregone.

Sadly, as it often does, the environmental status of many areas the community were threatened with the findings of low grade uranium in the soil. While not an immediate threat, the DEQ facilitated studies that ultimately led to the finding that long exposure could increase cancer risk 1000%. Why gamble with something like that? At that point the city water department began a process of treatment and filtering of wells and stop gaps to deter contamination. All was well…………until the DEQ came in and informed citizens of their risk. Sadly, in these cases, there were no bulk patches onto water systems. These citizens opted for the short term solution of sewer maintenance back in 1997.

I cannot tell you how disheartening it was to see citizen after citizen come forward with complaints about having to shower with bottled water, using only disposable kitchen ware, and getting rid of the family pet due to contaminated water supply and failing systems. As each citizen came forward the costs for remediation were expressed and in each case the reality finally sunk in. The initial denial of sewer and water service to the community back in 1997 now results in their having to install filtration systems that cost over $6,000 a year to purchase and maintain, and a stop gap service structure that ends up costing citizens way more in the near term than that original water and sewer system that was proposed 20 years ago.

As I sit and watch neighborhoods and infrastructure planners discuss the future of their communities from a utility standpoint I am always reminded of how the short term fix usually ends up biting those same persons in the rear when things do not go as planned.