February 2017 Water Emergency

In February 2017, a series of events led to a large-scale water emergency in our community, resulting in Do-Not-Use and Do-Not-Drink directives for the entire service area that remained in effect for over a day. These directives were required to protect public health and the water supply. We know that the community has and will have many questions in the days and weeks to come, below are answers to some frequent questions we have heard from members of the community. As the community and OWASA recovers, we will continue to provide updates to the community on the impact and investigation of the event. Updates will be made available on our website.

Will OWASA reimburse me for my personal expenses or my business losses associated with the water emergency?

We recognize and regret the negative economic impact that this water emergency had on the community. Unfortunately, we do not have the authority to issue bill credits or reimburse businesses for their losses. 

Will I receive a credit on my bill for the period of time that water service was unavailable?

As the community-owned (public, non-profit) water utility for Chapel Hill-Carrboro, all of our revenue comes from our customers. A credit, if it were provided, would have to come from our customers themselves; we have no shareholders, nor the authority from the State to issue bill credits. Although OWASA invests about half of our revenues to maintain and replace our water and sewer infrastructure, water main breaks do occur. Service interruptions are to be expected, and no guarantee against them is made by any public utility. We apologize for the hardship the water emergency created for our community, and we are committed to learn from the event to further improve our operation.

Was drinking water quality ever unsafe throughout the emergency? Was fire protection ever threatened?

Once we shut-down the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant on Thursday, there was no risk from the fluoride overfeed.

The Do-Not-Use directive was issued because of the main break. The main break dropped system pressure. Low system pressure threatens two critical services of our public water supply: safe drinking water and fire protection. The decision to make the Do-Not-Drink and Do-Not-Use directive was made with the Orange County Department of Public Health.

After testing water samples from our across our system, we now know that the water was not contaminated with bacteria, which was the public health concern. We could not assure that this was the case during the water emergency.  Because the community responded to the Do Not Use directive, we were able to ensure that there was enough pressure to maintain fire flows.

Did the fluoride overfeed reach the public water system?

No. One of our Water Plant Operators observed an overfeed of fluoride into the filtered water before the water was pumped into the distribution system. As soon as the overfeed was observed, we shut down the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant.

If I used water during the time the Do- Not- Use directive was in effect, will I be okay?

Yes. We have no indication that there was ever any contamination in the drinking water supply. However, during the time of the emergency, we could not assure this. Out of an abundance of caution the Orange County Health Department issued a Do- Not- Drink order for OWASA water.  

What happened?

The emergency came as a result of two major events that happened in short order of one another.

  1. We had to shut-down the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant to prevent an overfeed of fluoride from distribution into the drinking water system. This created the need to purchase water from the City of Durham through water system connections. Our tests show that excess levels of fluoride never entered the distribution system. Because the water coming from Durham was not enough to meet current local demands, we called for community-wide conservation to ensure our water supply remained adequate while we restored service from our Water Treatment Plant.

  2. The next morning a major water line broke in Northeast Chapel Hill. The pipe break led to a rapid and large loss of water, and water pressure fell in some areas. Adequate water pressure is required to keep contaminants from flowing back into the distribution system and to ensure enough flow to fight fires. Without knowing for sure that there was adequate water pressure in the system to assure safe drinking water and to conserve water supply for fire flow, a Do-Not-Use order was issued to entire service area.

In order to lift the Do-Not-Drink and Do-Not-Use directives, we had to recover water supply in our storage tanks and receive test results that assured safe water. The directives were lifted as soon as these two criteria were met.

More information on the timeline of events

What are we doing now?

We are investigating the causes of the fluoride overfeed and water line break, as well as our response to the water emergency. This investigation will be conducted by internal OWASA staff, as well as an outside third-party. At this point, we can say that we used our professional judgment to protect our community during the emergency. We have stopped the fluoridation of drinking water at our Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant while this investigation is underway. We will be transparent to the community on the results of this investigation. 

What are we doing to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?

Our mission is to provide our customers high quality and reliable water, wastewater, and reclaimed water services through responsible and creative stewardship of the resources we manage. Reliability is a driving force in every aspect decision making. We will be investigating the causes of the emergency and playing out what-if scenarios to help better ensure that our community is prepared.

The OWASA Board of Directors will be discussing action plans for how to ensure reliable operation of fluoride feed system and on the water main break on Thursday March 23, 2017 at 7pm in the Chapel Hill Town Hall.


The OWASA Board of Directors will be discussing an action plan for how to improve strategic communications during OWASA-related emergency events on Thursday April 27, 2017 at 7pm in the Chapel Hill Town Hall.

About $0.50 of every dollar our customers pay is invested in repair and rehabilitation. Our Capital Improvements Program (CIP) identifies the water and sewer system improvements we expect to undertake in the next five years. These projects include rehabilitation and replacement work needed to ensure the structural integrity and reliability of our facilities, as well as capacity expansions to support the planned growth of our service area as determined by the Towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and UNC Hospitals. Our CIP includes projects identified from our asset management evaluations, such as our Water Main Replacement Prioritization Model and our Sewer System Evaluation Studies

Why do we use fluoride in our water anyway?

To help prevent tooth decay, as recommended by the CDC, ADA, NC Division of Public Health, NC Public Water Supply Section, and other public health-related organizations. The ADA says that “fluoridation is a safe and effective means of preventing tooth decay. It has been cited by the CDC as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. Studies show that fluoridation can prevent between 15-40 percent of decay.”

We have suspended fluoridation of our drinking water until we fully investigate the cause of the overfeed.

Why didn’t OWASA update us every hour?

We did our best to keep the community informed throughout the water emergency event and to provide prompt and accurate response to customer concerns. We proactively called customers signed up for OC Alerts, emailed through our distribution lists, and directly called large customers. Our customer service staff fielded calls from the community into the night on Friday and all day Saturday. The Orange County Health Department directly reached out to restaurants, hotels, and critical care facilities by text, phone calls, and in-person visits. The Orange County Emergency Operations Center set up a round-the-clock call-line and text alert. Orange County Emergency Services (@ocncemergy) and OWASA (@OWASA1) used Twitter to provide information.

Despite these methods of communication, we recognize that the message could have been more clear. Our communication strategy will be a part of a thorough after action review of the water emergency, and we will be work to improve our communications to meet the diverse needs of our customers and community.

Why did I receive multiple text/phone/email notifications about the same issue?

We apologize to those customers that received repeated notifications. In order to ensure that critical public health messages reached as many of our customers as possible, multiple (and sometimes overlapping) channels were used to release calls-to-action and updates. We will identifying areas to improve moving forward.