Union County meets demand with new water source

Jan. 24, 2023
The North Carolina County has begun construction on the Yadkin Regional Water Supply Project after 15 years of collaboration and planning.

Union County, N.C., located approximately 25 miles southeast of Charlotte, provides drinking water to nearly 56,000 customers. However, there is no drinking water source within the county, and the county is not located near a major river basin water source.

Because of this, Union County sources its 24 million gallons per day (MGD) water supply through partnerships with adjacent counties. The county receives 20 MGD from the Catawba River Water Supply Project Water Treatment Plant, a joint venture with Lancaster County in Van Wyck, S.C., and an additional four MGD of water is supplied from Blewett Falls Lake through a water purchase agreement with Anson County, N.C.

A New Water Source

The State of North Carolina regulates the transfer of water among legislatively defined river basins through inter-basin transfer (IBT) permitting. Union County has an IBT which permits the transfer of up to five MGD from the Catawba to the Yadkin River Basin. The county is reaching the limit of this IBT and, with projected population and service area growth leading to increases in water demand, Union County leaders knew they needed to secure a sustainable water supply source for these customers.

For more than a decade, Union County pursued a new water source in the Yadkin River Basin, seeking to ensure a sustainable, reliable source of high-quality drinking water for its customers through a cooperative regional approach.


Challenges to achieving this goal have come from regulatory requirements to obtain a new IBT certificate for the project and approval for the use of Lake Tillery for non-project use by Duke Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The county ran into additional challenges in acquiring property interests for planned facilities and pipeline corridors, managing project costs, and completing design and construction amidst a pandemic and during an unprecedented inflationary period.

Planning Process

Work began in earnest with a series of master planning documents. After careful study, the Water Master Plan 2005 Update by HDR Engineering Inc. identified a need to look outside existing partners and resources for the required future water supply. From 2008 through 2011, a Preliminary Engineering Report and a Project Partner Assessment were conducted, identifying locations east of Union County for potential water supply.

After a Comprehensive Water and Wastewater Master Plan by Black & Veatch was completed in 2011, the county approached several entities for a partnership to bring water to Union County’s Yadkin River Basin and found a partner in the Town of Norwood, located on Lake Tillery. Following a partner assessment in 2013, the county and the Town of Norwood executed the Interlocal Intake and Transmission Agreement (IITA) defining the project, mutual benefits, and terms and conditions for property acquisition, design, construction, and operation of the project.

Norwood owns and operates a public water system that serves almost 1,600 customers and relies on Lake Tillery as its sole source of water supply. The Town can withdraw up to two MGD of water from Lake Tillery using their existing raw water intake and pump station, which were renovated in 1985 and now require replacement.

Productive Partnership

Working together on the Yadkin Regional Water Supply Project, the Town of Norwood and Union County are building infrastructure improvements, obtaining economies of scale, and benefiting from a long-term secure source of raw water.

As part of the IITA, Norwood and Union County agreed to establish a water supply and transmission system that will be mutually beneficial and utilizes a regional and intergovernmental approach that allows both entities to maintain control over their customer base, service area, and water production from their water facilities.

In the years after 2013, the county and its team identified the preliminary infrastructure requirements, conducted hydraulic and hydrologic modeling that confirmed available supply, and completed an Environmental Impact Statement that evaluated 12 water supply alternatives and identified Lake Tillery as the preferred alternative.

Union County selected HDR Engineering as Program Manager to serve as an extension of staff for the oversight of the project, including permitting, regulatory, and environmental activities, design and construction, easement acquisition, and support with public outreach and communications.

Project Management

The project management team led workshops with both Union County and the Town of Norwood to identify a proposed transmission main route; execute a preliminary design for the intake and pump station; assist the County in purchasing property for the treatment plant; help determine how to procure the project, and develop Progressive Design-Build (PDB)Requests for Qualification.

The program was divided into two projects: raw water infrastructure and finished water infrastructure. PDB delivery allowed the county to select teams based on qualifications, ensuring the most skilled designers and contractors would be leading the vital project.

In May 2017 — four years after the initial application — the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission approved Union County’s IBT Certificate. With this certificate in hand, the county advertised the two projects.

Executing Contracts

Union County executed phase one design contracts with CDM Smith/Crowder and Garney/Hazen in 2018. HDR led the team in beginning the land acquisition process for 321 property interests to be completed within two years. By closely managing the acquisition process for these property interests, the potential schedule risk associated with property acquisition was mitigated and did not impact the construction schedule.

Union County, HDR, and the design-build teams collectively communicated with property owners. Additionally, a project hotline was set up, and several public meetings were held so property owners could have their questions answered about the land acquisition process. These efforts combined led to a timely and positive land acquisition process.

Today the program management team continues to work side by side with the county and the design-builders through the process. This way, the end users will be prepared with the right equipment, processes, and personnel to successfully own, manage, and operate and maintain approximately $300 million in new infrastructure that this project will bring to Norwood and Union County — ultimately delivering high-quality drinking water to their respective customers and service areas.

In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, Union County and its consultant teams executed two Guaranteed Maximum Price (phase two) contracts for a combined approximate value of $260.6 million, submitted the FERC Conveyance Permit Application with Duke Energy, and advanced the project’s environmental permits. In the summer of 2020, FERC approved the Duke Energy Conveyance Permit. Later in 2020, the team obtained approvals of the projects’ Department of Environmental Quality and United States Corps of Engineers 401 and 404 permits.

Construction Begins

Construction began in the fall of 2020, on the jointly operated intake and pump station infrastructure. Two pump rooms on the lower level separately house dedicated pumps and equipment for Union County and Norwood. Union County’s pumps will deliver up to 17.5 MGD each conveyed through approximately 30 miles of new 42-inch and 54-inch steel raw water transmission lines. Norwood’s separate pump room will move water to serve the town’s nearby water treatment plant. In the lake, cylindrical brush-type intake screens and 54-inch intake piping led to the 54 MGD capacity wet well.

Construction on the project currently stands at approximately 80 percent complete. The new infrastructure includes the raw water pump station, about 30 miles of raw water transmission main, a 12 MGD water treatment plant in Unionville, N.C., and approximately 10 miles of finished water transmission main connecting into Union County’s existing water distribution system. Commissioning and startup of this new infrastructure will begin in early 2023.

The project is an excellent example of communities and agencies working together to navigate complex regulatory pathways, establish interlocal agreements, and design and construct mutually beneficial infrastructure to supply water to one of the fastest-growing counties in North Carolina, while benefitting an entire region.

The county and its consultant teams continue to engage the public, ensuring information about the project is readily available and timely. This collaboration will soon lead to great rewards for communities in Union County and the Town of Norwood. WW

About the Author

John Shutak

John Shutak, P.E., currently serves as the Engineering Division Director for Union County Water in North Carolina. He has over 20 years of public and private sector experience in the design, construction, and management of water and wastewater systems throughout the country.