For several years now the public wastewater treatment plant in Cashier has been at capacity. The 200,000 gallons per day the plant can handle is nearly all spoken for, save for a small percentage left as a state-mandated safety net and emergency contingency.
The sewer stalemate has been blamed for stifling economic growth in the area by limiting the number of new customers able to hook on to the system, particular commercial enterprises and higher density housing. It has also dissuaded residents with individual septic systems — which have greater potential for groundwater contamination and failure — from switching over to the public utility.
“We’ve run out of capacity,” said Tom Sawyer, an area resident and member of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority Board. “We’re unable to hook anybody else up.”
But what really has frustrated the situation is that the TWSA-managed plant is only “at capacity” on paper. About half of the treatment plant’s load is allocated to developers or property owners who aren’t actually using it yet, said the authority’s Executive Director Dan Harbaugh.
Years ago, developers bought up capacity for projects that never came to fruition. But they are still hanging on to their unused allotments.
Currently, the plant has 270 customers in Cashiers. That could be more than doubled if the unused allotments were freed up.
However, regulations keep the sewer system from doling out the unused allotments. Developers bought the allotments, and they aren’t eager to relinquish them in case they want them one day after all — even though they must pay a monthly fee in the meantime just for hanging on to them.
“We’re not seeing a lot of pressure on these developers to abandon what they already have and stop paying,” Harbaugh said. “If they give it up, it’s hard to get it back.”
Many of the unused allotments were bought for projects before the housing recession hit, and then the projects put on hold. Meanwhile, sewer service in Cashiers has been at a standstill, as developers and investors re-shuffle and downsize or decide whether to scrap constructions plans.
Even for those who have definitively pulled the plug on their own development plans, there’s incentive to hang on to their allotment since it makes a tract more marketable from a real estate perspective.
Unused allotments aren’t an outright commodity — they can’t be sold or transferred for a project on another piece of property. That could create an environment where developers buy up allotments with the sole intention of selling them later.
Instead, allotments are tied to the property, and can only be transferred to another owner for use on that same property. Having a piece of property with a sewer allocation attached to it can be more enticing to potential buyers than one without, said Sawyer.
But the downfall is that property owners with an immediate need to tap onto a sewer system are left with little recourse.
“The only option you have at this point is either you buy a building or property with existing sewer tap or you have to build a septic field,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer has a business in Cashiers, Mountain Party Tents and Events, but is not on the sewer system. Although he’d like to be, his only alternative is to use a septic system.
Sawyer knows of specific cases of commercial development that were stymied due to the lack of capacity, including a proposed restaurant in downtown Cashiers.
“They couldn’t get enough sewer tap so they backed out of the deal,” Wilson said. Currently, six applications for sewer allotments are on a waiting list with the authority, asking for a total of about 5,000 of gallons per day of flow.
Harbaugh said they may be granted their requests, but only because the authority is moving toward building another treatment plant east of Cashiers. Because plans for a new facility are in the works, the state allowed the current plant to raise its flow from 80 percent to 90 percent of the 200,000 gallon-per-day limit.
A 14-acre tract of land on the Horsepasture River is under option with the authority as the site of a future sewer treatment plant. If construction begins, the authority can raise its cap on the current plant to use the full 200,000 gallons per day.
If all runs smoothly, the plant could be up and running within three years. Environmental interests could mount opposition over discharge into the protected Horsepasture River. The project would need a bevy of state and federal permits. The authority is now in the process conducting environmental and engineering surveys to see if the site is feasible.
But Harbaugh also has his reservations about spending millions of dollars constructing another wastewater treatment plant when the full potential of the current one isn’t realized, just to meet a need on paper.
“You don’t want to buy that car and park it in the garage for five years,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the balancing act.”
Although grants may become available, much of the cost may fall on the backs of customers. Yet, someday a new facility will be necessary regardless, as it is unable to discharge anymore volume into the Chattooga River. And over the next two decades, demand for sewer in Cashiers is expected to triple what the current plant provides. The new plant will meet that projected need.
However, a pressing concern is what happens in the meantime. For property owners who can’t link to the sewer system the other option is to use a septic system and a leech field to filter the waste. That poses at least two potential problems, one being the property owner must have enough land to meet the minimum leech field size, the other being Cashiers drinking water could be at risk.
The authority’s board has set aside 5,000 gallons per day of capacity for emergency situations in which a septic system fails and that building needs someplace to flush. Damage from tree roots and broken pipes can wreak havoc on septic systems which in turn can do the same to groundwater.
“When they fail, then it becomes not only your problem but your neighbor’s problem,” Sawyer said of the septic systems.
Furthermore, over time, slow seepage into Cashier’s aquifer could all adversely affect the well water. Without a centralized water system, much of the community’s water comes from an open aquifer, which is not enclosed in a protective clay layer.
The soil structure is such that whatever goes into the ground is also being drawn up by the many individual wells serving residents. Cashiers’ growth projections, especially now that the homebuilding market in the area is picking back up again, are not going to help the situation.
“If you’re getting too many septic fields close together you can start to impact groundwater standards,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not saying that’s happening but the potential is there.”
In the coming year, he said he will begin exploring some sort of water solution for Cashiers, whether it be expanding a small, centralized water system that serves the county’s recreation center and a dozen or so nearby customers, or enacting restrictions in the dry months as to how much water people can pull from their wells.
In drought, residents have experienced water shortages because of the strain on the main aquifer.
But both Cashiers water and sewer, hopefully not intermingling, will be a challenge to keep the community viable and growing in coming years.
“We want to make sure the community is sustainable,” Harbaugh said.