GREENSBORO — Summerfield, Stokesdale and Oak Ridge are not just big suburbs of Greensboro.
They’re incorporated towns with councils and mayors that face many of the same issues that affect bigger cities like Greensboro.
But one thing is not standard among them: water.
Oak Ridge and Summerfield residents use well water while Stokesdale buys water from Winston-Salem.
Now they’re banding together with Guilford County to study whether it makes sense to create one water system they can all share.
In 2016, the state set aside $14.5 million that could help build systems in Guilford and Rockingham counties. It’s unclear how the money will be divided, but it’s seed money that could kick-start a water system project that would quickly run into the tens of millions of dollars.
In the past month, the four governments approved an agreement drawn up by Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing to hire an engineering firm to research the feasibility of creating a water authority to manage such a system.
With northwest Guilford being the county’s fastest-growing region, County Commissioner Justin Conrad believes a study is essential. A dependable source of water would be key to that growth.
“At the end of the day, if we’re going to continue that growth we have to know,” Conrad said.
And depending on the answer, Oak Ridge Mayor Spencer Sullivan said: “This is either a first step or a last step.”
Sullivan and his fellow leaders want to make it clear that the document they passed approves one thing only: a study. No other action can be taken until the governments gather more information.
Two issues are at the heart of the study: water quality and availability.
If you have never lived outside of Greensboro, you may not know that residents of Oak Ridge and Summerfield — even those in the most expensive homes — rely on water that comes straight from the ground.
The only way to get that water is to drill hundreds of feet into the earth. And you don’t always strike water. Dry wells are common.
“You can only stick so many straws in the ground,” Sullivan said. “We are littered with dry holes. It’s hard to get water out here.”
And then there’s the issue of contamination.
In the late 1980s, Stokesdale began grappling with gas and industrial pollutants in well water that forced people in some neighborhoods to drink bottled water.
The town, which was incorporated in 1989 and has about 5,500 residents, solved the contamination problem more than 10 years ago by building a new water system. It now operates 18 miles of lines to carry water it buys from Winston-Salem.
Now, Stokesdale has joined the Guilford County group to find out whether a local water authority could provide a more affordable supply.
Oak Ridge, incorporated in 1998, has no water system for its 7,000 residents, any of whom could run into mineral pollutants, dry wells or other problems associated with well water.
And Summerfield, the biggest of the towns, with 11,000 residents, is also wondering how to keep the water safe and provide good fire coverage for its neighborhoods, many of them upscale.
Shared wells that are managed and monitored by a Pennsylvania company called Aqua America supply water to 11 subdivisions in Summerfield. The company also manages 18 community wells in Oak Ridge.
Outside of the towns, its unclear how many residents in unincorporated Guilford County might benefit from a water system.
The low-density areas can’t be targeted for service until the broader scope of a water authority can be planned.
“In the utility business its all about critical mass,” Lawing said. “The more customers you have the more feasible it will be.”
Sullivan said that Oak Ridge nearly had its own water system in 2005 when Aqua America offered to build one for $33 million and sell Rockingham County water to the town.
But a couple of years later, he said, the company backed out with no explanation.
The recession buried any discussion of a water system in Oak Ridge or anywhere in northwest Guilford.
But the issue returned two years ago when Rockingham County told the three towns it might be in line for a state grant and the county offered to run a line to supply water to the towns.
So the towns signed an agreement with Rockingham to take a look.
But the county never applied for the grant and the issue stalled again.
In July 2016, seemingly out of nowhere, the state passed in its budget a $14.5 million allocation to cover water infrastructure in Rockingham County, Madison, Mayodan, Reidsville, Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale.
“We were just tickled to death,” Summerfield Mayor Mark Brown said.
Rockingham County officials were largely responsible for the appropriation because of talks with N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden.
Since then, Rockingham and Guilford counties have decided to work independently on separate water authorities. They have asked Berger to tweak the legislation and divide the money.
Lawing, Brown and the other officials said the study could be a pivotal moment for the towns and county. A dependable supply of water would be a magnet for developers.
“A lot of the larger subdivision (developers) might like the idea of the water thing, especially those that are having problems with water,” Brown said. “But all that’s for the future.”
The immediate job is to start the study, Lawing said. He will soon begin drawing up a set of qualifications that engineering firms must use to apply for the $100,000 job, likely to be paid for by the state.
The legislature will probably tweak the language and find a way to divide the $14.5 million in the next 60 days.
The group should begin the search process for an engineering firm within the next 45 days, and the three towns and Guilford County will get together for a final decision.
Or the start of a long, careful process.