By Peter Vankevich and Connie Leinbach
The Ocracoke Sanitary District (OSD) got good news this summer when it was awarded two grants to replace the island’s aged water tank.
The big-ticket, the Water Tower Replacement Project Grant, is for $5.6 million and will replace the 150,000-gallon water tank, built in 1977.
It will be installed next to the existing water tank, and no disruption in water service is expected with the transition.
Scott Bradley, chair of the OSD, said the final design and height has not yet been decided and that it will be researched by the engineering firm Municipal Engineering of Garner.
Because of Ocracoke’s harsh coastal environment, the new tank will be constructed with composite and concrete obviating the need for constant repainting.
Ocracoke’s water plant gets water via “reverse osmosis,” in which brackish water is pushed through a membrane to take out the salt.
To get the raw water, three wells extract it from the Castle Hayne Aquifer more than 600 feet underground. While the upper layers of this water lens contain fresh water, its lower depths contain brackish water from where the plant draws its water.
This grant will partner with Ocracoke’s Volunteer Fire Department to replace all 68 fire hydrants. Many are over 45 years old and are suffering from the salt air.
The second grant of $150,000 for Asset Inventory and Assessment will allow the OSD to inventory, map and assess the island’s 16 miles of water infrastructure.
It will allow the OSD to survey all 16 miles of pipe and inventory the areas of the island, such as West End Road, Central Drive and Bryant Lane, that do not have OSD water, and develop options. Homes in these areas have wells.
“We’ll look at these unserved areas and come up with a plan,” Bradley said, but added that it will just be a plan.
The OSD does not have the money to lay hundreds of feet of pipe in these areas. The residents would have to come up with the money themselves, he said.
Bradley explained that water lines were put in the island in the 1970s and at that time, the extant buildings hooked up to the system for a $30 fee.
Since then, however, due to various government regulations and financial viability, to connect into the system costs $5,100 plus whatever it costs to lay pipe to your house and then connect.
“Nobody’s gotten free water except the people back in the ’70s,” Bradley said.
A number of efforts have been made to get the Central Drive landowners together to pay for waterlines, as has happened on other private roads on the island.
“But the people didn’t want to participate,” he said.
Adding to the daunting price tag, especially at Bryant Lane, is that in order to lay pipe along Bryant Lane, they would have to drill across Lighthouse Road because the water lines are on the other side of it.
The price of just that would be about $20,000, he said, on top of then laying pipe down Bryant Lane.
The grants were approved by the State Water Infrastructure Authority and the funding source for these grants comes from the state’s allocation of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed in 2021.
By law, the ARPA money has to be spent by December 2026, but since the OSD has all the permitting needed, Bradley hopes the new tower will be in place before that. Construction contracts have to be in place by the end of 2024.
Ocracoke’s grant comes from the recent $789.4 million in grant and loan funding the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Infrastructure awarded to 385 drinking water and wastewater projects statewide, including 140 construction projects.
The DEQ outlay includes funds from the state budget, the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds, the State Reserve and the Viable Utility Reserve.
Bradley said the reverse osmosis plant serves 1,300 meters, half of which are year-round residents. In 2012, the OSD opened up 500 more connections to the existing system though not all have been used.
The water plant complex, which is managed by the OSD, is on National Park Service property, which has worked cooperatively for the new construction.
The water tank is a well-known sight for Ocracoke village. Seen from miles away, it a popular subject for photographs and as a roost for Great Horned Owls and Peregrine Falcons.