Manheimer Addresses Lingering Water Concerns - TribPapers

Manheimer Addresses Lingering Water Concerns

Photo by Jack Dylan.

Asheville – “You know, my question is, and I’m a lifelong citizen of Asheville and Buncombe County, “What are you doing as far as preventive maintenance?” began Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides. “You know, every time it gets cold, say below freezing, I’ve noticed it’s happened in my neighborhood; it happens all over the city; our pipes just crack; you know, there’s water spewing up everywhere.” You know, I saw it when I passed Little Pigs, and it looked like waterfalls or something. That happens always, but my concern is, what are we doing for preventive maintenance?

Commissioner Al Whitesides is everyman's voice as he asks Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer what the city is doing to prevent another round of water outages. Screenshot.
Commissioner Al Whitesides is everyman’s voice as he asks Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer what the city is doing to prevent another round of water outages. Screenshot.

“Now, I heard [Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell] in one of her press conferences talk about spending $10 million, but given the shape or condition of our infrastructure and water, $10 million is a drop in the bucket. I mean, this has gone on for years, and it appears to me that the city has used water as the cash cow, but didn’t put anything back into the infrastructure. You know, I’ve been back home since 1971, and this has been every winter. It’s been a constant problem.

“And as a taxpayer, now, I’m not speaking as a commissioner, but as a taxpayer, I’m fed up with what I see.” And it appears to me that it’s just mismanagement. We’re not doing what we need to do, and it’s not fair to the citizens of Asheville. You know, our taxes aren’t cheap here, and I’m writing several checks, but I don’t mind paying my taxes, but I want to get my money’s worth. You know, I believe in paying for what I get, but I don’t believe in paying for what we don’t get.

“And what I’m saying here is that the hundred thousand people who live in the city of Asheville, not to mention all the people living in the county who use our water system, are asking the same questions, but we don’t seem to get any answers or see any progress.” I’m concerned about that; I mean,Mayor Esther Manheimer, who had been invited to the commissioners’ meeting to discuss what the city was doing about the water system, broke in. She acknowledged that the city is spending $10 million a year on capital improvements to the water system and that it just completed $50 million in upgrades for the North Fork dam and waterworks.

Then she said she wanted to correct some things. She explained the city could not use the water system as a cash cow due to the Sullivan Act. At that, Whitesides interrupted with, “Then where’s the money going?” Manheimer continued, saying the various iterations of the Sullivan Act, which were signed into law at the state level, were written to stop the city and the county from using up to 5% of their water revenues for general fund expenditures. When they were allowed to do that, she added, the water system was, to put it mildly, not adequately maintained.

Manheimer did not discuss the ways the city works around the letter of the law, though. The current iteration of the Sullivan Act forbids the city from using water revenues for purposes other than those that can be construed to be related to water, and so the city has been, for example, combining road repairs with waterworks to bill the paving to the water department.

Secondly, Manheimer said the water department is an enterprise fund, so its capital improvement plan is funded not by tax collections but via water bills. Since the system’s needs are so great, it has always been a balancing act to keep rates affordable to customers while addressing the most pressing issues when it comes to infrastructure repairs.

Next, the mayor gave an overview of the cause of the water crisis, or, as Commissioner Parker Sloan put it, “how the dominoes fell.” It was January 3, and the mayor said water had been restored pretty much throughout South Asheville but not Candler.

She said the water system typically has a demand of 22 million gallons a day (MGD), and the Mills River water treatment plant, one of three in the system, only puts out 3.5 MGD. The river at the intake for the Mills River plant froze “like an ice rink.” Since water expands as it freezes, it was now clear why Water Resources Director David Melton had said parts of the facility “froze and busted.”

At first, the city thought the system would survive without the small contributions of this plant. Then, demand rose to 28 MGD. This time, Manheimer credibly gave as the reason busted pipes throughout the city. This was made worse because a lot of businesses were closed, and nobody would be around to notice there was a problem until people returned from the holidays.

Manheimer said a swift decision was made to prevent a citywide boil-water advisory. The city also prioritized getting clean water to Mission Hospital. One part of the plan was to insulate the rest of the city from places that had lost their water, even though this would mean it would take longer to get water to the places that had lost it. Another part was to get the Mills River plant back online fast, but repairs turned out to be more complicated than expected. Manheimer agreed it was important to make this plant more resilient, hopefully before the next deep freeze.

She closed that round of remarks with, “I do not want to take away from what you’re saying, Commissioner Whitesides, because I think, as a water customer, you should be outraged, and you should want to know what is the plan to make sure this system is resilient and can handle climate change, can handle aging infrastructure, even with a robust capital plan, and not have a failure like this, which is unacceptable.”

Additional items of discussion included the need for the city to install a state-of-the-art notification system and the formation of a committee. The committee will likely be tasked with performing an after-action analysis within the first 30 days and coming up with recommendations for improving capital investments, crisis communications, emergency service response, and water treatment and distribution over the next 90 days.