Coy Armstrong moved to Cane Creek from Wilkes County in 1922, when he was eight years old. He has walked his land thousands of times, and probably knows Cane Creek better than anyone.

If the proposed Cane Creek reservoir is built, Coy Armstrong says, it will simply prove that people in Chapel Hill “aren’t thinking of what they can save, but what they can use.” What it means to him, personally, is even simpler: “You work hard all your life and get nothin’ for it.” Come the reservoir, “I’ll go up to the highest mountain I can find. No lakes up there.”


When I first saw Cane Creek under the bridge on Teer Road a few months ago I sensed that Progress would soon transform a scene so charming and peaceful into something chaotic. This was before I knew about the proposed reservoir.

Seven years ago, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced its intention to build a reservoir at Cane Creek to help meet the projected water needs of Orange County and Chapel Hill. Other plans considered were expanding University Lake (the source of most of Chapel Hill’s water), tapping into the Jordan reservoir, piping water from the Haw, or undertaking a joint project with Durham. It was decided that expanding University Lake would destroy too much land as well as require a very large dam, that the Jordan and Haw options were questionable because of the water quality at both watersheds, and that any arrangement with Durham would take forever to work out.

The water problem — getting more water to meet increasing demand and population growth — is not unique to Orange County. About 97% of the world’s 8.7 million cubic miles of water is unfit for drinking or agriculture. Much of the 2.7% of the water that is fresh is inaccessible since it is locked in glaciers, or underground. Of all the world’s fresh water, only .36% in rivers, lakes, and swamps is available for human use. Water is a renewable resource, but since the total amount of water always stays the same, the amount of water available on a per capita basis hinges on population growth and density shifts.

There has been a worldwide increase in water use for industries and homes, as more and more people have flush toilets, lawns to be watered, and water-guzzling appliances like dishwashers and washing machines.

A person in the semi-arid lands of Africa might use .8 gallons a day, while London uses 68 gallons per capita per day (gpcpd), New York 270 gpcpd, and Chapel Hill 120 gpcpd. Even if individual consumption is reduced, overall demand is likely to continue to rise as long as population increases. The world’s population, currently estimated at 4 billion, is expected to increase to 7 billion by the year 2000. Droughts and dry spells worldwide — including the western United States — have been making the problem worse.

Ever since the surveyors were sent to Cane Creek a few months ago, the Cane Creek Conservation Association has been campaigning to save the threatened land and farms. On the other side, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) has been pushing hard to get the reservoir underway. There are few hard facts, but rather conflicting opinions, projections, and strong feelings.

According to one set of population projection figures for Chapel Hill and Orange County, and assuming that per capita use will continue to rise (from 120 gpcpd now to 150 gpcpd in 2020), by the year 2006 the OWASA service area (which will then be serving over 95% of the projected population of Orange County) will need 13.5 million of gallons per day (mgd). It presently uses about 3.5 mgd from University Lake.

Hazen and Sawyer, the consulting engineering firm which did the original feasibility study in 1969 and remains under contract to OWASA, contends that it still makes sense to build a 10 mgd reservoir at Cane Creek. The water quality is high, the watershed area large, and a proportionally smaller dam would be needed than a similar facility at University Lake.

If the reservoir is built at Cane Creek, perhaps six families will lose their homes or sizeable pieces of land. Many people have lived all their lives there and have a strong connection with the land. This is something city people may have a hard time understanding and which never seems to enter cost accounting formulas.

One of the fears of Cane Creek residents is that they will not be adequately reimbursed for their land; they recall what happened to those evicted from the Jordan reservoir site. This is a particularly touchy issue for the dairy farmers whose land has commercial as well as residential value. One of the arguments Cane Creek residents give for enlarging University Lake is that it is easier to relocate private homes than commercial dairy farms. They also point out that University Lake is currently underutilized, and that the town and university have allowed development around the lake, which they knew might need to be expanded.

Two water experts consulted by Cane Creek residents think that the Hazen and Sawyer size estimates for expanding University Lake are conservative and inaccurate. Professor Edward Wiser, a water hydrologist at North Carolina State University at Raleigh, presented his own calculations for expanding University Lake at a March meeting of the Orange County Task Force set up to deal with the reservoir. Dr. Wiser’s estimates are based on a different set of techniques and assumptions than Hazen and Sawyer’s. They make University Lake a much more attractive alternative in terms of cost and logistics. The main argument against expanding University Lake has been the enormous size of any projected reservoir and dam. The appropriate size of a 13 mgd facility at University Lake will probably be one of the main issues in the court battles over the next few months and possibly years.

People at Cane Creek feel Chapel Hill should take care of its own problems before coming to them for water, even if this means building only a 10 mgd reservoir at University Lake. And they resent the way they’ve been pushed around by OWASA. Perhaps the issue would not be quite as explosive if Cane Creek residents had been consulted by the university and OWASA, and if they had seen other alternatives seriously examined, as well as an attempt at water conservation in Chapel Hill. There is also resentment about the surveyors sent by OWASA who have played off neighbor against neighbor to gain entry to the land. Another underlying issue is the clash of cultures and lifestyles. Cane Creek has a lot of old-time dairy people and one-time city residents who have decided to live closer to the land, whereas Chapel Hill is filling up with an increasing number of professionals, whose lifestyles tend to be more consumptive. It might be hard to give up your house because people in Chapel Hill use an enormous amount of water on their lawns and five gallons of potable water to flush a little wee wee down the commode.

Before construction can start, OWASA must submit an Environmental Impact Statement to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (which has veto power over the Corps); this statement must be approved before a permit can be granted. With smooth sailing this takes about 18 months, but with opposition as strong as it is, it could turn into several years. OWASA, before exercising eminent domain, must go before the Environmental Management Council in Raleigh; this involves public hearings and an appeal procedure. Remarkably, this information was made public by Cane Creek and not OWASA; either OWASA did not know about these requirements or didn’t want to make them public. If OWASA was holding back, they were acting unethically, since a possible delay in the construction of a Cane Creek reservoir affects its feasibility. If OWASA didn’t know about this, then they haven’t done their homework.


Until recently, the whole question of water conservation has been absent from the Cane Creek controversy. Except during the dry spell last summer, there has been no long term, concerted plan to conserve water in Chapel Hill. The consuming public, local government, and public utilities have treated water as an unlimited and cheap natural resource.


I’ve recently completed a water conservation study of the Orange County area. Even though the data are by no means precise, they are suggestive of how much water we could save by implementing only a few conservation measures:

TABLE I Projected Water Needs for Orange County (Hazen and Sawyer)

YEAR Millions of Gallons per day
1980 5.8
1990 8.4
2000 11.2
2010 14.4
2020 17.5


TABLE II Projected Water Needs of Orange County Assuming No Increase in Consumption per capita

YEAR Millions of Gallons per day
1980 5.8
1990 7.9
2000 9.9
2010 12.1
2020 14.0


TABLE III Projected Water Needs for Orange County Given the Following Scenario:

* No increase in consumption per capita from 120 gpcpd.

* By 1980, all toilets will be reduced by ¾ gallons, 50% of all showers will have water-saving heads. Starting in 1980, all new construction will have water-saving shower heads and low flush (2½ gallon) toilets.

YEAR Millions of Gallons per day
1980 5.3
1990 7.4
2000 8.9
2010 10.6
2020 12.0


There are many devices on the market for conserving water: composting toilets, pedal faucets, systems to re-use “grey” water from sinks and baths to flush the toilets, water-saving sprinklers. And there are a number of other approaches to saving water: leakage control, metering, pricing, effluent charges, as well as public education, ordinances and code modifications.

The area served by OWASA would need substantially less water if even moderate conservation measures were followed; the above data is only the tip of the iceberg. Some people have reacted to the conservation argument by saying: “Great, let’s build the biggest reservoir we need at University Lake and Cane Creek and guarantee an adequate water supply for the longest time possible.” Cane Creek residents have typically responded by saying: “Great, why don’t you build a 10 mgd facility at University Lake that will give you an adequate water supply up to the target year of 2006 and don’t bother us.” If water conservation is taken seriously, one option is to build a smaller reservoir at Cane Creek, which will substantially reduce the amount of land needed, or go ahead with a 10 mgd facility at University Lake instead of the contemplated 13 mgd reservoir.

There was reasonable interest in the talk I gave recently on water conservation to the Orange County Task Force. But most public officials felt there was little they could do, since their hands are tied by building and plumbing codes (which they also feel helpless to change). It’s ironic that codes which were originally established to protect the public now make it impossible, in most parts of the country, to conserve water. If public officials around the country viewed themselves more as advocates than bureaucrats, our codes might be made to work for us instead of against us. OWASA, like most public utilities, views its role as simply responding to “reasonable” public demands. This was feasible, although shortsighted, when energy was cheap and abundant; it is certainly not feasible now.

If local government and utilities viewed their role as advocates, they could research water-saving devices and systems and then present this information to contractors and developers. Many of these systems are no more expensive than conventional ones; any small added expense could be offset by the increased publicity and public goodwill for the developer.


Whatever reservoir site is finally used, Orange County, like many counties across the United States, will be faced with severe water shortages sooner or later; even if strict water conservation is practiced, as long as population continues to increase there is going to be a time when there will be severe water shortages. The problem is with us; the best we can do is respond to it creatively. Water conservation, along with proper watershed planning and management, are the most creative alternatives available now. How we respond will determine the quality of life ahead of us.