Drink it up!

October 05, 2007
Identifying and protecting high-quality drinking water sources crucial for communities worldwide

The Cane Creek Reservoir

The Cane Creek Reservoir

For more than five decades, Dr. Daniel A. Okun has been a champion of protecting drinking water resources in North Carolina communities and around the world. In his animated, deeply committed style, he urges communities to draw their drinking water from the highest quality sources and make every effort to prevent their pollution. Okun, who served as chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the UNC School of Public Health from 1955 to 1973, has worked in 89 countries and lectured and provided expert testimony to municipal planning committees and legislative committees, courtrooms, municipal water organizations and city debates in numerous cities throughout the U.S.

“There’s no question that communities should use the highest-quality drinking water sources,” Okun says. “Polluted sources should not be used unless other sources are economically unavailable.”

In North Carolina, Okun is known for his role in identifying and developing the Cane Creek Reservoir, 11 miles west of Carrboro, N.C. Cane Creek now is the primary water source for the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro as well as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1952, University Lake (located two miles west of Chapel Hill) was the only water supply for the towns, and by extension, the University, which owned the water system. The University and the towns were growing fast, and Okun realized a new water source soon would be needed. The design of University Lake would not allow sufficient expansion to provide enough water for UNC and the surrounding communities. For more than a decade, Okun worked with his students to come up with solutions for a new water supply source.

“It was very difficult to make a decision about the best way to go. At that time, topographical maps for the area west of Chapel Hill didn’t exist,” Okun says. “Then we got the first print of topographical maps the federal government was making of the area west of Chapel Hill. We saw facing us right there the ideal site. Once we had the new area mapped, it became clear that Cane Creek was a very good option from many standpoints. One important reason was that there was no urban or industrial development out there.”

By this time, however, the University’s Board of Trustees was making plans to obtain water from nearby Jordan Lake reservoir, being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at no cost to the state of North Carolina. Built primarily for f lood control, Jordan reservoir would also be a water supply and recreation source for nearby communities. Okun argued forcefully against its use as a drinking water source since the reservoir would receive agricultural, industrial and urban discharges from communities, such as Greensboro, that lay upstream.

During this time, opposition to the construction of Cane Creek Reservoir also heated up, Okun says.

“Groups of land developers in the region banded together to persuade the farmers on Cane Creek that a dam on the creek would be detrimental to their financial interests,” Okun says. “They took their interests to court which extended construction of Cane Creek Reservoir by almost a decade, raising its cost.”

In the end, credit for construction of Cane Creek goes to the University, Okun notes. UNC owned the water utility and decided to yield its water system to a newly created public entity — the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA). At Okun’s recommendation, the University Trustees made building Cane Creek Reservoir a condition for transfer of the water system to OWASA. Cane Creek Reservoir now holds four times more water than the city’s original source.

“It took time to build the dam, but now we are assured of having water of high quality for the foreseeable future,” Okun says.

“The Cane Creek Reservoir saga is a perfect example of how our environmental scientists make a difference,” says Dean Barbara K. Rimer. “Their laboratories include our rivers, fields and the air we breathe. By tackling the challenging problems faced by our communities, faculty, staff and students in our Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering have advanced science while making us safer.”

– by Emily J. Smith

 

Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health. To subscribe to Carolina Public Health or to view the entire Fall 2007 issue in PDF, visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.