Asheville – ‘Twas the season to be jolly, and, judging from public comment at the Asheville City Council meeting, there were no hard feelings. Mayor Esther Manheimer even recalled there was no fighting or throwing things amongst all the employees yanked away from their families to work and work hard over their Christmas holiday. Angst was only a memory, spoken of repeatedly with heartfelt commiseration and apologies from City Manager Debra Campbell.
Outside of comments made by regulars who have an axe to grind, disappointment was only inferred behind recommendations that the city undertake measures to make sure large segments of the population will never again be stranded for two weeks without safe drinking water. An exception may have been Chris Burns.
Burns said he and Tommy Laughter, in the audience, were representing Chuck Edwards, who, during the outage, received many, many calls, letters, and emails as a state senator and a US Congressman. Burns said the Congressman wanted the city to get to the root of what caused the outage, and he wanted to know what the council was going to do to make sure the crisis would not repeat. Burns closed by saying he could see from the council members’ eyes that they, like their constituents, still had a lot of questions.
At first, constituents were irate because they did not have water and they could not find out from the city what went wrong. Then, the city blasted social media and started holding frequent press conferences. Last week, the mayor spoke before the county commissioners, and this week, council had a thorough discussion. The item on the agenda was merely the creation of an independent after-action committee, but staff had to provide background, and, as Burns said, council had questions.
The director of water resources, David Melton, whose name Campbell said had become a household word, was charged with explaining to the public why the outage was not due to simple negligence but rather to a perfect storm caused by freakishly low temperatures hitting on a holiday. Campbell had already explained that the city was investing $72.8 million in capital improvements for the water system, but it would, of course, review its plans following the latest crisis.
Water Distortion 101
Melton began with the basics of the water system. Production begins with water being drawn into a water treatment plant. The city owns three water treatment plants: North Fork in Black Mountain, one named after William DeBruhl in Swannanoa, and the Mills River plant in Henderson County. Combined, they treat on average 21.5 million gallons per day (MGD), supplying water to 156,000 customers spread over a 183 square-mile service area.
The water coming from the North Fork and DeBruhl plants runs downhill, but the water produced at the Mills River plant must be pumped to customers. Pumps are also required to push water uphill elsewhere in the system. The system has a valve that can allow water produced by the eastern plants to flow to lines normally serviced by the Mills River plant, but not vice versa because, as Melton kept saying, “the gravity-fed would override the pumps.”
Asheville’s water system has 54 pressure zones, with the water pressure in each being boosted or reduced by its own pump or valve. A lot of water systems have only one pressure zone. These maintain water pressures of 60–180 psi, whereas Asheville’s average pressures are about 170 psi, although the system can withstand 400 psi. Maintaining appropriate pressure in all zones, said Melton, is an ongoing balancing act.
Once treated, the water is sent to one of the city’s 36 holding tanks for distribution to the mainlines and then through smaller pipes to homes and businesses. The city tries to maintain a day’s supply of water in the holding tanks.
Melton explained people were getting water restored in apparently irrational ways because typically the holding tanks must be recharged before persons downstream can get any water, but sometimes there are taps between the water plant and the holding tanks. Also, pressure must build in the system before water can be pumped to the higher elevations.
What Went Wrong
The city’s leadership is still learning about what went wrong on Christmas Eve. One reason the committee was formed was to further investigate. The latest narrative, Melton said, began with the water department detecting leaks coincident with issues at the Mills River plant. These were described as “chemical lines freezing and other concerns.” The city responded by shutting down the Mills River plant temporarily and opening the control valve, with the North Fork plant increasing production to compensate. Opening the valve was nothing new, as the Mills River plant often had to be shut down, whether for technical issues or scheduled maintenance. Melton said it had been offline for most of 2020 for upgrades and repairs. The plant was back in service that night.
On Christmas, the Mills River plant was taken offline again, and the city dispatched crews to detect leaks throughout the system. When a leak was found on private property, the crews would notify the owners that they needed to fix the leaks immediately or cut off the water to help lower system demand. Many of these people were away for the holidays and would not know about the problem until they returned.
Staff also began Incident Command Meetings, where high-volume, critical-need water users, like Mission Health, were contacted. Inquiries were made into the adequacy of their water supply, and they were asked to exercise conservation measures insofar as possible. Incident Command Meetings continued into the next day, when the depletion of water in the system was sufficient to justify deploying a portable pump the water department uses in emergencies to maintain flow to the western part of the county.
This was the day the city’s leadership had to make a difficult decision. They shut the control valve to prevent untreated water in the south from contaminating water in the north. Melton said failure to do so would have resulted in a systemwide shutdown with boil-water advisories. The fewer people affected by a boil-water advisory, the better, because, as Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette later explained, not infrequently, people won’t get word of the advisory or will assume they won’t get sick from drinking contaminated water. At the time, it was estimated that the Mills River plant would be back online in 6–18 hours, but the complexity of the problems had been underestimated.
On the 27th, the water department got more serious and notified property owners that their water would be cut off by the city if they did not address the leaks. Also, the holding tanks in the west were not refilling, and people at higher elevations were not getting water, so staff began scouting around for a larger booster pump. A pump was loaned by an unnamed private party and installed, but not until December 30.
A boil-water advisory was then issued for the western part of the system on the 28th. Also on the 28th, the Mills River plant was returned to service, and the city began delivering bottled water to residents in the south.
By the 29th, the North Fork plant was treating 28 MGD, more than enough for the system’s ordinary needs, but “it was still losing ground.” The reservoirs were still charging, and water was leaking. Melton said by December 31, 27 large water leaks had been detected, one of which appeared to be spilling out 4.5 MGD of treated water inconspicuously underground. In the following week, deliveries of non-potable water began as the holding tanks recharged and boil-water advisories were lifted bit by bit. Melton assured me that throughout the ordeal, city staffers were collecting and testing water samples to ensure water quality.
Emergency and Communications Perspectives
Burnette next provided a timeline for emergency service response. It began with a call from Melton on the 26th, at which time Burnette began looking for alternative water sources for the fire department. The next day, he began developing plans for a week of outages with Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Taylor Jones. Burnette said one thing good about this crisis was, “all other systems [communications, roadways, electricity, gas] were green.”
Burnette and Jones decided the most effective way to quickly get people safe drinking water would be to deliver it in bottles. It was too early to know what the demand would be. Given only a rough estimate of the number of people without water and data indicating only a “small percentage” of folks generally accept direct assistance in situations like this, it appeared the envisioned delivery system could last a week. Preparing against a more protracted crisis, the state was contacted. Burnette shared the plan and said if the outage ran over a week, the state would likely have to step in. He said the state confirmed their policy that they would help only after the local jurisdiction had exhausted its resources.
Emergency services personnel also spoke with Ingles’ leadership, which assured them it was experiencing no supply disruptions and foresaw no problems in the days ahead. Other retailers reported selling water as soon as it could be restocked, with new supplies arriving roughly every morning. City employees and volunteers from the Red Cross were enlisted to handle deliveries, which began within 18 hours. The city ended up making about 3,000 deliveries, of which about 500 were made to people in disadvantaged communities who typically would not have the technology or other connections to know what was happening or how to reach out. When it became clear that the city did not have the resources to last another week, it began making non-potable water available as well.
Assistant City Manager Ben Woody followed with a communications timeline, which was richer than probably most would have thought. A lot of communications went out via social media and the city’s website, but the early messages only asked people to conserve water. Late in the game, as enough was being learned to have a message, the city held multiple press conferences. Efforts were also made to get trustworthy word-of-mouth messaging to disadvantaged communities.
After talking about the mechanics of the problem, Mayor Manheimer said she hadn’t gotten any complaints about operations; people wanted to know when their water service would be restored. Councilwoman Maggie Ullman concurred, saying constituents had described hanging in limbo with insufficient intel to decide whether they should book a hotel room or stick it out. Council discussed ways to better communicate, whether it would be with regular updates, if only to say they still know nothing, or with something that may be even higher-tech than the city’s state-of-the-art AVL Alert. Councilwoman Kim Roney suggested uploading a status bar, as is done with package deliveries. Manheimer liked how Duke Energy sends out regular messages to let people know they are still working on an outage and the customer has not fallen through the cracks.
Citizen Katy Hudson shared during public comment that, given the finitude of municipal resources, most citizens would probably prefer funds be invested in ensuring an uninterrupted supply of potable water than in a better way of informing them about the next major outage. In light of climate change, she suggested the city would do better to arrange for backup plans that don’t involve the water pipes at all.
Woody explained that the equipment at the water treatment plants was insulated and the buildings were weatherproofed before the incident took place, but the city will be taking measures to fortify the protections. The lines that failed will be replaced, redundant chemical lines will be installed, and the manufacturer of the equipment that failed will dispatch representatives on-site for regular inspections. He said he felt confident another outage like this would not happen this winter. This was based on his confidence in the talents and dedication of the staff.
Throughout the meeting, Campbell stressed the importance of avoiding overpromising and underdelivering. She added, “We have a water line break on a daily basis to avoid overpromising and underdelivering. She added, “We have a water line break on a daily basis.” Almost on a daily basis.” She assured members of the public that the city has long had plans and protocols in place that would take into consideration the findings and recommendations from the after-action committee’s final report, which should be completed in May.