Water's Restored, Confidence? Not So Much - TribPapers

Water’s Restored, Confidence? Not So Much

Photo by Michael Matlon.

Asheville – People were calling the Tribune to complain about water outages. There was no water at Givens Estates, but there was water gushing out of a line near the hospital on McDowell. People were frustrated because no information about the extent of the problem was available from the city. The duration of the anticipated outage was given as 24-48 hours, but citizens became flustered after the same numbers were given day after day. It was a holiday, so members of various media outlets kept getting out-of-office messages, and the live people they contacted either explained they were too busy getting ready for the next press conference or referred them to others with out-of-office messages.

So, in the days prior to the first press conference, it seemed helpful to try to get an idea of the geographic outlay of the problem. A series of phone calls was made to businesses in areas from which complaints were rolling in on social media. “Hey, do you guys have water?” Everybody who answered the phone was happy to talk about the situation. It was, after all, the talk of the town. As long as people said no, calls would be made further down the road. Once a couple businesses said yes, the calls would veer in another direction. The data collected in this way, with two exceptions, turned out to match the city’s eventual report rather well.

The map of the city's progress at restoring water as of Saturday. Pink areas lost water but have since had it restored. Hatched areas were still without water. Source: City of Asheville.
The map of the city’s progress at restoring water as of Saturday. Pink areas lost water but have since had it restored. Hatched areas were still without water. Source: City of Asheville.

The first concern was whether or not the hospital had any water. They did. A little to the south, the Biltmore Village Inn, taken as representative of the entire village, also had water. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, as well as Ingles at the South Forest Shopping Center, reported having water, “right now.” Heading south, the Hilton Doubletree had water, but the Atlanta Bread Company was closed for lack of water. The offices of the Town of Biltmore Forest reported rosier conditions than the mass media had, indicating that instead of a full outage, some residents were without water and others were merely experiencing low pressure.

Going further to the south, Walmart was reportedly closed for lack of water, and nobody was answering their phone. The store was, however, open for business the next day. The worst hit, it appeared, were the retirement communities. Deerfield reported absolutely no city water, as did Crowfields. Representatives of Givens Estates said the community was on a boil-water alert and exercising conservation measures as there was the possibility that they would run out.

Publix was open, but the next day, the girl at the sushi counter happily shared that the store ran out of water at 8 p.m. on Monday and the deli had to shut down. She was grateful her manager brought in a lot of water to keep her in business that day. She motioned to the back room, where a large stash of water cooler bottles could be seen.

Restaurants were a little trickier, as some of the answers sounded suspect. After all, the crew members answering the phone had no idea whether the person on the other end of the line was an undercover agent from the health department or not. The names of restaurants are therefore scrubbed from this record, as it is unfair to burn an informant who may have only been a high school kid on the second day of the job. Going to great lengths to serve customers with adequate hygiene should seem virtuous to a discretionary mind with a healthy lack of interest in memorizing every code in the books.

Store A reported they were open; they just weren’t serving sodas, and Store B, also open, said they had “imported water to wash our hands.” McDonald’s had no water and referred the caller to the McDonald’s on Long Shoals Road. In fact, all businesses on Long Shoals and in Biltmore Park Town Square, appeared to have water. Later, in following up on a report that the pool at the Reuter Family YMCA had been closed in spite of it all, the employee contacted was of the opinion the center had closed the pool out of deference to the city’s request to conserve water and not for an outage. As it turned out, undiscovered by the cold calling, there was an extensive outage affecting homes behind the businesses on Long Shoals Road, and these homes were among the last to get water back. In a later development, all the city’s YMCAs were opened to members of the public in need of a shower.

The situation was not so good on Airport Road. The Walmart reported they had just received their shipment of port-a-potties, so they were in business. The same was true for the airport. The block of hotels simply remained waterless.

Trucking up Brevard Road, the big factories didn’t answer their phones. Celebrity Hot Dogs said they had water, but didn’t think that would last for long, as the water had just been “shut off” in the neighborhood behind them. Shortly thereafter, the city reported an outage for that neighborhood and adjacent ones. The Asheville Outlets had water.

From elsewhere in the city, several reports came in about a major outage in Candler due to a line break on or near Monte Vista Road. There were also extensive outages along Smoky Park Highway and Sand Hill Road, which the phone survey missed due to a lack of complaints. The outages in the western part of Buncombe County would later be addressed when an anonymous private party loaned the city a pump that it may use until services are restored with permanent infrastructure.

The situation in Fairview appeared to be more a matter of cracks in numerous small pipes than a rupturing mainline. The reports were so spotty, a call was placed to the fire department. They reported some people were losing water pressure, and water was being “cut off” in other places because lines kept breaking and the city couldn’t keep up with it all. It was reported that the fire departments had water, but the person on the phone explained that they were keeping their tanker full, but if they ran out, they would have to “go around looking for a hydrant with water.” The city’s fire departments would later take on a heroic role in delivering bottled water to over 1,500 people experiencing hardship.

Several reports of outages along Sweeten Creek Road were lodged, so CarePartners was contacted. This is a large facility with beds for the disabled and frail elderly. They run a cafeteria, they have to keep patients hydrated, and cleaning bed and diaper messes is part of the daily routine. The rehab facility had totally lost its water, but services had been restored right before they were contacted. Elsewhere, satellite offices of Mission Hospital, as well as small independent healthcare offices, were out of water. A couple of veterinary hospitals that were contacted were also without water.

The City Speaks –

Saturday morning, frustrations still ran high among the waterless. The lack of water was bad enough, but friendly conversations among friends and even strangers, and definitely social media platforms, remained swamped with complaints about the way the city was handling the outage. At the height of the disaster, an estimated 38,500 customers were without water. Affected citizens were asked to conserve water and boil what they intended to drink.

At first, it sounded like the city was placing the blame squarely on the citizens for using too much water. Problems started on December 24, but a couple days later, the city explained things. “The extremely low temperatures and high water demand continue to place an unusual strain on the City of Asheville’s water distribution system. Please consider conserving water and delaying unnecessary water use for the next 24-48 hours to help avoid low or no water pressure for all customers.”

This increased demand was described at times as being due to people running their faucets to prevent the pipes from freezing. The demand, however, continued to be high after temperatures rose into the 60s on Friday, with Mayor Esther Manheimer noting that the system typically produces 22 MGD for its 1,700 miles of pipe, but that day, it was producing 28 MGD. A less-repeated, but possibly more credible, hypothesized cause of the high demand was an influx of holiday travelers.

The citizens, however, were skeptical. After all, the city spent a lot on educating and outreaching them when it struggled long and hard to wrest the water system out from under the dysfunctional Water Agreement. So, one can only hope that by now everybody has heard the narratives about the city’s lossy water system. It’s in the mountains, with four seasons, so the pipes have to withstand greater fluctuations in temperature and pressure than their counterparts in Florida. So, why is the city deflecting concerns raised by citizens that the greater usage may well be due to treated water running out of as yet undetected cracks in the system? Their questions are very fair, as nobody who opts to pay for housing in a semi-urban setting wants to gamble on having potable hydration and sanitation for the rest of their lives.

So much comes from the dais about democracy and transparency, but the city has been tyrannical in its withholding of information. Taxpayers need accurate information about the state of the infrastructure that serves them so they can make educated decisions about whether they want to float another water bond or elect a new administration that “elevates” the maintenance of basic infrastructure higher in the budget process. In a real democracy, the best available information would be candidly placed on the table for an adult discussion. It’s possible that the temperatures were too extreme to justify hardening the system against the next time the weather conditions occur, or that the city’s pipes are so bad that outages like this will become the new normal. The problem is, citizens are not trusted enough to even handle this much information, and they resent being treated like children who can’t handle the truth.

Citizens found it unsettling how little was said about why the Mills River Water Treatment Plant went offline. These are unstable times. Let your imagination run wild. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the city is definitely cultivating an informational void.

So, at its Friday afternoon press conference, instead of giving citizens the information they needed to answer practical questions like, “Am I going to have to relocate if I choose to live with a reliable source of running, sanitary water?” the city answered questions like, “How do you expect me to conserve water if I don’t have any?” responding to the outburst of exasperated sarcasm literally, as if that was going to help anybody. Citizens had no use for the general platitudes they were being fed, as if the script were a Madlib prompting for blanks to be filled with parts of speech from The A to Z of Business Bullls**t.

The first press conference wasn’t even held until four days after the problems began. While people would speak of the Mills River WTP failure for days afterward as if it hadn’t been explained, Water Resources Director David Melton stated at that time that the plant had gone offline because unspecified portions of the facility had frozen. He later used the term “froze and busted” to explain what happened to equipment there. Also, without much detail, he assured the public that corrective action was being taken. The public, in turn, was left wondering if the freeze-over had anything to do with reports about $1.7 million in water damage caused at the plant last year by a construction error that left equipment exposed to the elements. Was it shoddy repairs that went unnoticed or intentional deprioritization?

Manheimer explained to the press that nobody was alarmed about the facility going offline, as it had done so often in the past. One report seemed to say it was not atypical for it to be offline for eight months out of the year. Manheimer said shutting the plant down was so routine that it did not rise to the level of requiring approval by the city council.

At least the city remained true to one of its principles. It was reported that the city was “proactively using our climate justice map” to help identify people in need of water deliveries from the city.

Should Someone Be Held Accountable?

Nothing was unique about pipes breaking in sub-freezing weather. A casual Google search revealed freezing temperatures over the holiday weekend also derailed water systems in Highlands and Hope Spring, North Carolina; Jonesborough and Shelby County, Tennessee; several locations in the metropolitan Atlanta area; Louisville, Mississippi; twelve water systems in Louisiana; and seven counties in Alabama—for starters.

The lack of straight talk from the city about what went wrong at the Mills River Plant raised suspicions. It wasn’t so much about whether the issues would have gone undetected in practically any other water system that is managed responsibly as it was, based on social media posts, about why the city does not trust its citizens enough to level with them.

The current city council has been criticized for their lack of ability to oversee the water system, but this downplays memories of the truly dysfunctional Regional Water Authority, whose board was so large and diverse that consensus could never be reached. The result was water shortages almost every summer, when residents were asked to abide by various levels of conservation measures. It was also the era of the Great Flush, when years of deferred routine maintenance forced the city to shut down all water service at once and open all the hydrants. At that time, the Mills River WTP, which was owned by Henderson County, was employing best practices by flushing a few hydrants at a time on a rotating basis.

When Asheville gained control of the water system, which was in very bad repair with, in some places, age-old, original pipes, one of the first things it did was contract with a firm that sent an “arthroscopic” robot through the system not only to identify weaknesses in the pipes, but to locate them, as no map was known to exist for the entire system. The city floated bonds and raised rates to commit tens of millions upon tens of millions to pay for upgrades to the pump stations and lines. Water audits indicated that, despite losing 30% of treated water, the system was performing above average for comparable systems, and since the city took over the system, strides have been taken to appreciably reduce the losses even more.