What does it take to ensure that all of Asheville’s water customers have safe, potable drinking water every time they turn the faucet? In short, three water-treatment plants, 152 employees, a system consisting of approximately 1,625 miles of main lines, 52,000 water meters and a great deal of maintenance, monitoring and adjusting to meet greater demand.
These and other details were highlighted by Water Resources Department staffer Ron Kearns during a presentation delivered for Citizen’s Academy, a city-led series of classes meant to give residents (including Xpress staffers) an in-depth look at the inner workings of Asheville’s local government. The May 15 session featured a tour of the Mills River Water Treatment Plant, located in Henderson County.
While the bulk of Asheville’s water supply comes from the North Fork Reservoir, a pristine source that can provide up to 32 million gallons per day, the Mills River Treatment Plant bolsters the supply with up to 7 million gallons per day. Located at the confluence of the Mills River and the French Broad, the plant can take in raw water from either source: It draws primarily from the Mills, but tapped the French Broad a couple times during last summer’s drought. The plant is located south of Asheville, but the French Broad flows north, so the river water drawn in for treatment by the plant has not yet not passed through the city.
The water-treatment process is extensive: Once the raw river water enters the system, it is pumped to a settling pond, then from station to station. It gets “zapped” with ozone for disinfection; cleansed of all remaining sediment and particles; zapped again, filtered, treated with bleach and chlorine along with other chemicals; enhanced with trace amounts of fluoride and zinc; and finally, pumped out to water lines in south Asheville and Hendersonville.
Asheville’s Water Resources Department, Kearns noted, does face some challenges. As development moves upward into the mountains, for instance, more tanks and pump stations have to be brought online. “People who are living on top of mountains, it costs a lot more money to get the water up there,” he noted, adding that developers of large-scale, steep-slope subdivisions are required to fork over 20 years of upfront maintenance costs when a line is extended. “In Black Mountain, they come up with a lot of dry wells,” he said, so developers must turn to municipal supply. (Black Mountain is considered one of Asheville’s wholesale water customers.)
Meanwhile, as overall growth puts more pressure on the system, aging infrastructure must be upgraded. “Our water system in some locations is 100 years old,” Kearns noted. “Is that unusual across the nation? No.” Compounding that pressure is the fact that the water department cannot disapprove any customer as long as water is available.
One the bright side, Asheville is very fortunate, Kearns said, to have a very high quality of water. And even during the drought, there was plenty to go around.