Protecting the Little River, NC: Sustainable Water Supply vs. New Reservoir

The Little River is one of the healthiest in the Southeast region, home to an abundance of fish and wildlife. It is a tributary of the Neuse River, running about 90 miles from just north of Raleigh in Franklin County to Goldsboro, NC. The river also provides irrigation for a number of farms, and is used extensively for fishing and paddling.

The Little River has benefitted from a number of restoration efforts that have improved habitat for fish and wildlife. The removal of three dams has successfully restored 130 stream miles for six different kinds of fish.

The City of Raleigh and Wake County have proposed a new reservoir to meet the expected demand for clean water in 2040. The proposed reservoir would inundate 10.5 miles of stream and 573 acres of wetlands that provide clean water and natural flood protection benefits. The Raleigh Public Works Department is leading the effort and assumes that water demand will more than double from 50 million gallons per day (MGD) to 101.8 MGD due to population growth from roughly 450,000 people to 780,000 people.

This antiquated approach to water supply is misguided. Additional reservoirs are not needed at this time; water needs to be used more wisely, getting it to do more with what is currently available through water efficiency. Reservoirs are an old flawed technology: unreliable during droughts (if there is no rain to fill them up then there is no water to use), are not cost effective (costing –in this case- at least 3200 times more than water efficiency) and are not adaptable to climate change (increased heat will increase surface evaporation and increase stormwater run-off will pollute them).

The dam and reservoir do not have to be built in order to provide reliable water for the future population of Raleigh. Raleigh should focus on reducing water demand over the next 15 to 20 years.  In 2010, average per person drinking water use in Raleigh was 111 gallon per capita per day (GPCD) . Truly water efficient communities have been able to reduce their drinking water use to below 45 GPCD. 

If Raleigh is able to reduce its drinking water demand through efficiency improvements and water reuse to 65 GPCD by 2040, it will only be using 50.7 million gallons per day- a mere 700,000 gallons more than today and providing pure clean drinking water to an additional 330,000 people.

Raleigh’s water utility system will have the ability to provide up to 140 million gallons per day by 2015- more than 2½ times the water efficient demand, creating significant flexibility in the system and making the Little River Reservoir unnecessary. Reduced water use will also reduce costs for the utility- including reduced pumping, treatment and maintenance costs- which in turn will reduce water bills delivered to the customers.

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