Canton plans for water system upgrades

Substantial upgrades to Canton's drinking water system are on their way. File photo Substantial upgrades to Canton's drinking water system are on their way. File photo

Although concerns about Canton’s post-mill wastewater treatment remain front and center, the town’s recovery from devastating flooding in 2021 continues to move forward with a project budget meant to shore up the town’s aging water infrastructure. 

“The bulk of the funds are being used to make huge improvements and modifications to the existing water treatment plant, as well as the intake facility there,” said Town Manager Nick Scheuer during a March 14 meeting of the Canton Board of Aldermen/women.

A $9.2 million allocation, shepherded by Haywood County’s legislative delegation — Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon), Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) and primarily Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) — was made by the General Assembly in 2022 specifically for that purpose.

The town’s water treatment system is currently permitted at 4 million gallons per day, but due to equipment constraints as well as the location and condition of the intakes, it usually doesn’t exceed 1.2 million gallons.

That lost capacity would have come in handy earlier this year, when it seemed as though the town’s antiquated water infrastructure was suffering from failures and outages every other day as aging pipes conspired with cold weather to leave customers with prolonged boil orders or without water altogether.

Huge line breaks created a water deficit that was hard to overcome, Scheuer said.

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“We had so many different water line breaks on both public and private property that took so long to figure out, that by the time that we had them all remedied it just takes so much time to gain that ground back,” Scheuer said. “Literally just the water treatment plant improvements alone will have a very substantial impact on our ability to be more resilient in those type of events.”

The $5.9 million project includes funding for two new pumps, gravity filter rehabilitation, media replacement, sedimentation basin repairs and upgrades, a new standby generator and repairs to the Spruce Street tank.

Critically, the project includes line items for leak detection and for a system-wide assessment, including mapping.

“The net result of that will be that our water and sewer departments will have the tools to be able to locate, identify [and] target known issues,” Scheuer said. “We don’t just want to know our system and understand it, we want to be actively improving it and making sure that we’re mitigating future impacts from an aging infrastructure system, which is something that every municipality in the country is dealing with.”

A 2015 report by the Congressional Budget Office  backs up Scheuer’s last point; despite a combined total of more than $4.1 trillion in inflation-adjusted water and wastewater spending by federal, state and local governments from 1956 through 2014, federal spending decreased from a high of around $16 billion  in 2014 dollars during the mid-1970s to just $4.4 billion in 2014.

The result of those decreased spending levels during the so-called “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s is becoming ever more clear by the year as projects completed prior to the cuts are now reaching the end of their service lives  more than 40 years later.

Mayor Zeb Smathers asked Scheuer about a timeline for completion of the project. While Scheuer said he couldn’t give an accurate account, he anticipated that it would happen fairly quickly because he’d been in conversation with regulatory agencies like the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Water Infrastructure, both of which are aware of the importance of the project and are willing to expedite the review process.

Additionally, Scheuer said, a lot of the improvements have already been engineered, a lot of the equipment has been identified and some of it has even been ordered.

The project is proceeding with the help of Haywood County Schools, which will also see more than a little benefit from a highly-resilient water system. Schools can’t operate when there’s no water.

“We are very appreciative of the Haywood County school system and their cooperation in this — and our [General Assembly] representatives — because it obviously would affect a place like Pisgah High School or Canton Middle School,” Smathers said.

The town is also pursuing a number of grants for the project, which could change the project budget if they’re awarded.

At least some of the allocation will also be used to prepare for the town’s other major water issue — the clock is ticking on the town’s wastewater treatment system , located at the now-shuttered Pactiv Evergreen paper mill.

The mill has treated the town’s wastewater for free since the 1960s, but a two-year agreement for Pactiv to continue operating the system will expire in 2025.

The town received another $38 million appropriation  from the General Assembly last year to provide a solution, but has not yet settled on a site. According to Scheuer, some of the $9.2 million appropriation will be used for preliminary siting, design and permitting of the future wastewater treatment facility , wherever it ends up being built.

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