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Water safe again but limit to essential use, Orange County officials say

Posted February 3
Updated February 4

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— The do-not-use order for Orange County water customers was lifted Saturday afternoon after tests results across the service area showed the water was safe to use and consume.

Officials said customers should still limit use to essential purposes because water levels remain below normal. The order has been in place since Friday when a water main broke near Chapel Hill, causing severe shortages in the county's water supply.

Residents in the Foxcroft Drive area are under a boil water advisory due to the broken water main. County officials said they will know by 7 a.m. Sunday if the water is safe to drink.

Due to a shutdown of the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant and a major water main break Friday morning on the northeast side of Chapel Hill, near Dobbins Drive, the water supply in the OWASA system reached very low levels, officials said. A state of emergency was declared for Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Officials said using water could result in contamination of the OWASA system. Customers were encouraged to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. Bottled water can also be used to flush a toilet after pouring the water into the tank, officials said. Ice made after 11:00 a.m. should be discarded.

Patients, guests and employees at UNC Hospitals are also unable to drink tap water or use it to wash their hands. But they say they have adequate supply of bottled water on site.

Ed Kerwin, executive director of OWASA, said he estimated that 1.5 to 2 million gallons of water was lost in the break, and that at least 80,000 customers were affected – 250 customers were without services entirely.

"This is essentially a worst case scenario," he said.

Kerwin also said that it could be at least 48 hours before the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant was once again producing clean drinking water.

Due to the water main break, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools dismissed students early.

According to a tweet by UNC Housing, dorms will not close, but students were encouraged to leave campus if possible.

The UNC men's basketball game against Notre Dame was moved to Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.

All restaurants served by OWASA were ordered closed by the Orange County Health Director Friday afternoon. Colleen Bridger, the Orange County health director said health department staff were going door-to-door to alert hotels and restaurants.

Instead of a bustling start to the weekend, restaurants on Franklin Street and other parts of Chapel Hill are shut down.

"Especially tonight, that's a lot of money we're missing out on and a lot of people are disappointed," said Isaac Park, owner of Ms. Mong restaurant. "It's just going to be devastating for all the businesses around here. The whole town is going to lose so much money from this."

Many restaurant and bar owners said before the water crisis, this weekend could have been a lucrative weekend with the UNC basketball game, that will now be in Greensboro, and crowds from Super Bowl Sunday.

"We are going to weather this just fine, I think most places will," said restaurant owner Chris Carini. "It is one weekend out of many. Typically when this happens you see a resurgence the following week when everyone wants to get out."

GoTriangle said an additional bus on route 800 will be sent to Chapel Hill to pick people up who are at the South Road at Fetzer Gym stop. The bus will continue on to Streets at Southpoint, where passengers can transfer to other locations.

Regular route 800 service between Chapel Hill, South Point and the Regional Transit Center will continue for the remainder of the afternoon and early evening, following the usual schedule.

According to a spokesperson for the town of Hillsborough, the town operates under a separate water system and customers in Hillsborough are unaffected by the water main break.

The water main break comes one day after an accidental overfeed of fluoride in the water treatment plant forced the utility to get drinking water from the City of Durham. The excess fluoride was contained to the Jones Ferry Road plant.

It is unclear is the water main break is related to the fluoride overfeed.

Residents with questions about the water shortage can contact Orange County emergency officials at 919-245-6111. Customers can also text "owasawater" to 888777 for information.

Public water distribution sites will open at 10 a.m. Saturday for residents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro who have been impacted by the water shortage. Chapel Hill has sites at Hargraves Community Center and Southern Community Park. Carrboro has sites at McDougal Elementary School and Carrboro High School.

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