You don’t have to be a dam expert to realize that the new Bee Tree Reservoir holds a whole lot of water (more than 520 million gallons, actually).
Dormant for nearly 10 years before its April 25, 2008, reopening, Bee Tree was the city’s primary drinking-water source for more than a quarter-century. After that it served a stint as a popular recreation area before becoming a backup water source. Its history touches on family roots, the area’s demand for pure drinking water, sporadic reactions to recurring droughts, and conflicting political passions. Bee Tree may pump a mere 3 million gallons a day into the system—North Fork puts out 17 mgd, Mills River 5 mgd—but in the bigger picture, it looms large.
For Buncombe County native Cindy Burnette Medlock, Bee Tree’s story is wrapped up in her family’s history.
Her maternal grandparents once owned much of the land beneath the 41-acre lake, as well as the surrounding watershed. And their house once stood right where the lake is today. “My parents used to ride down the face of the dam on old tires, [and] on Sundays, we’d walk around the lake,” Medlock recalls. Her husband, Asheville native Dale Medlock, remembers fishing there with his grandfather during Bee Tree’s recreation-only years (1964 to the mid-‘80s). The place, says Cindy, “was home. It’s [part of] my family roots and history.” When she was old enough to go to school in town, “I told people I was from Bee Tree; I didn’t connect with Swannanoa.”
Before Bee Tree was built, she adds, her grandfather and other men in search of work “walked all the way to Craggy [Gardens] to lumber up at Mount Mitchell.” But Asheville’s growing demand for water created much-needed jobs that were far more accessible. Between 1903 and 1915—when city leaders began looking beyond private wells and hillside water tanks—area residents worked on a series of water projects, starting with an intake that tapped the Swannanoa River.
“Everybody had a job,” says Medlock.
And as the area grew, Asheville’s thirst for water proved almost unquenchable. By 1910, another intake was built farther up Bee Tree to secure an even purer source. But that still wasn’t enough, and escalating water demand spurred an even grander project. Buying land from Medlock’s family, the city began planning construction of Bee Tree’s dam and reservoir.
“The valley was rich at that time,” she says. Electrification had come, and residents felt flush with money earned from selling their land and from working on the Bee Tree projects. Some bought their first cars; her grandmother bought a new set of china.
Soon after, however, the great flood of 1916 struck. In July of that year, a series of hurricanes—first from the Alabama Gulf Coast, then up from South Carolina—drenched Western North Carolina, dropping more than 22 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. In the ensuing floods, 28 people died, local textile mills shut down, and the regional railway connections came to a cold stop, according to a July 19, 1916, New York Times report. Floodwaters rushed down mountainsides and rivers throughout the area, leaving great swaths of destroyed homes, bridges and businesses.
The dam at Lake Toxaway near Brevard, for example, collapsed and sent a “30-foot wall of water” and “rocks as large as train cars” roaring down that valley, according to one first-person account. Damage at Bee Tree was less dramatic but no less heartbreaking. Medlock’s grandmother told of searching the debris for anything worth saving. She found one fine teacup: unbroken and full of mud.
It was 12 more years before the big dam was finished. A local engineering firm, Charles E. Waddell & Co., headed up the work. An illustration from an old company pamphlet shows what a marvel it was: Measuring from the bottom of the lake, the rim of the dam was taller than the Jackson Building downtown. Bee Tree is still the biggest earthen dam east of the Mississippi.
Drinkin’, fishin’ and fixin’
Bee Tree served as Asheville’s primary water source from 1928 until North Fork came online in 1955. Nine years later, the city’s water needs temporarily met, Bee Tree closed its pipes and converted to recreational use.
Chief Anthony Penland of the Swannanoa Fire Department remembers swimming in the lake as a boy. “That was the coldest water I ever swam in,” he says. Medlock, meanwhile, recalls walking around the lake and coming to a dead stop, confronted by the “biggest, fattest rattlesnake I ever saw.” Black Mountain Public Works Director Bob Watts adds, “You could come up here and be in a different world.” Even today, the narrow Bee Tree Valley gets steeper, darker and more lush as you drive up the main road. But back then, says Watts, “It was beautiful. People would come up here in their Airstream [trailers] and camp out.” Nowadays, of course, post-9/11 security concerns and liability issues bar public access to the dam, reservoir, watershed and treatment plant.
To keep pace with Asheville’s ever-increasing demand for water, Bee Tree was brought back online in mid-‘80s, and the William DeBruhl Water Treatment Plant was completed on-site in 1987. (Previously, the pristine water had simply been filtered and chlorinated.) By the late 1990s, however, the old dam had developed stress fractures. “We looked at what it would take to open it up [both] for recreation [and] as a water source, but the cost was unreal—about $30 million,” says Water Resources Director David Hanks. So when the city completed the Mills River Water Treatment Plant in 1999, Bee Tree was simply shut down.
It lay dormant until a 2001 bond referendum provided funds for repairs, and it was almost two more years before work began. Emptying the lake, rebuilding the dam and spillway, and revamping the treatment plant cost about $8 million, Hanks reports—considerably more than the $5 million originally estimated.
After that long, says Michael Orbon, an engineer with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, “the chemicals [used for water treatment] set up rock-hard in the pipes, tanks and filters.” Bringing the facility back online took a lot of work, he notes.
“The job took [almost] five years to complete,” says Hanks, remembering the seemingly endless stream of equipment and crews, not to mention state and federal regulators like Orbon checking and re-checking everything. Hanks also recalls the giant hole left after draining the lake (which must have looked something like what Medlock’s grandfather would have seen during construction of the original dam).
Water Production Superintendent Leslie Carreiro details the extensive overhaul, which included new filters, valves, pumps and software. Crews even climbed inside the cavernous holding tank below the plant and sandblasted its walls clean before sterilizing it and painting the exterior. “It’s always nice, [when] a plant is closed and not busy, to fix [a little] of everything,” she notes. And while Schnabel Engineering crews were fixing the dam and spillway, city staff could attend to the smallest details. “The turkeys were probably the worst problem,” says Carreiro. “They’d poop on the steps.”
The new dam and spillway will hold back more water than the old one, she says, and slow down any excessive overflows from the kind of rains that fell in 1916 (and, more recently, in 2004).
That’s a good thing. Memories of the 1916 deluge linger in the minds of longtime natives like Medlock. Despite taking pride in helping build the original facility, she says, Bee Tree folks “always wondered if there’d be another flood after they built the [big] dam.”
A familiar story
Droughts, technical disasters and phenomenal growth have driven water issues during most of the area’s modern history, says Black Mountain resident Wendell Begley. Asheville—currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Buncombe County and the N.C. General Assembly over the water system—“has a long and colorful history of dealing with water,” he muses.
From 1996-98, Begley served on the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson (the agency was renamed after a new, 1994-95 agreement brought Henderson County into the fold as part of a deal that enabled Asheville to build the Mills River plant). Long interested in local history, Begley says he acquired a new level of respect for the water system’s past. The Authority’s 1994 annual report summarizes the basics: Prior to 1903, wells and springs provided water for residents and businesses. After that it was the Swannanoa River (a more polluted source that proved “unsatisfactory,” according several reports), and then a series of intakes that gradually moved farther up the North Fork and Bee Tree valleys as demand increased. A severe drought in 1950 spurred construction of the North Fork Reservoir, says Begley.
The city had owned the 22,000-acre North Fork watershed—some of it bought from Medlock’s Burnett relatives, some acquired via condemnation and eminent domain—at least as far back as 1927, perhaps with an eye to protecting the watershed and meeting future needs, says Begley. And however unpopular those forced acquisitions may have been, he reflects, “There has to be a value to preserving the land. If the city hadn’t done [what it did], it would have been developed”—and Asheville would have lost out on 17 million gallons per day of water supply. More than 80 inches of rain falls on the heights of the surrounding Black Mountains each year, Begley emphasizes, making North Fork and Bee Tree catch basins for some of the purest water in the world.
Both reservoirs are fed by Class I sources—streams clean enough for even our hypersensitive native trout. “There isn’t any kind of contamination uphill,” says Orbon. As a result, he notes, “You don’t get any of the problems you have with other sources.” The Mills River, for example, is rated Class II because its banks are lined with homes, farms and public roads—all of which typically reduce water quality. Bee Tree’s water, by comparison, “is so pure you can see deep down into it.”
Voters spurn French Broad
By the 1980s, the region was growing, business was good and water demand had increased dramatically, recalls Lou Bissette, who served as Asheville’s mayor from 1985 to 1989. There’d been a drought in 1981—and then, he says, “We had problems with all of our pumping stations and [smaller] reservoirs. We had one reservoir [tank] completely emptied, and that put a stress on all the others. The city was without water for days until they got the system back in balance.”
Those events helped spur construction of the Bee Tree treatment plant; meanwhile, the city fished around for a new water source, looking first to the French Broad River (in 1984, Asheville bought land near Long Shoals Road for a treatment plant).
But that idea didn’t go over too well, remembers Bissette. The French Broad’s water quality was markedly worse. Many residents didn’t trust it. As Black Mountain’s Bob Watts quipped during the luncheon celebrating Bee Tree’s reopening, “Folks used to say about the French Broad, if your dog had mange, throw him in the river: It would either kill the mange or kill him.”
Worse yet, says Bissette, “We didn’t see the storm coming.” That “storm”—a grass-roots campaign led by Hazel Fobes and Richard Maas, among others—played on those fears while arguing for an emphasis on conservation and fixing the decrepit system, which had been losing a third or more of its treated water daily to leaks, faulty meters and other “unaccounted for” discharges.
To some, conservation seemed a far more radical notion back then: At the height of the controversy, one public official caused a stir by stating publicly that he liked to take long showers.
The citizens’ campaign culminated in the defeat of a May 1989 bond referendum, effectively ditching plans to draw from the French Broad. (This was despite the fact that the ballot wording made no mention of the river it proposed tapping.)
In the wake of that defeat, the Water Authority started pushing conservation, distributing free water-saving kits and creating a Water Efficiency Task Force. At one point, the agency was even giving away low-flush toilets. (Now the industry standard, these units—which save several gallons per flush—were cutting-edge back then.)
All in all, the defeat was ultimately a good thing, Bissette says now. The better-quality Mills River was tapped instead—thanks partly to the efforts of some of the same activists who’d opposed drinking from the French Broad—and Asheville now has enough water to sell some to Hendersonville, Black Mountain, Biltmore Forest and other municipalities.
During the 2007 drought, many cities had to buy water. Atlanta’s mayor resorted to lawsuits and prayer, and many private wells in our region ran dry, but Asheville’s water customers suffered little. In part, this was because ongoing repairs and improvements have gradually reduced system loss, which now averages 18 to 22 percent of treated water. Residents, too, embraced conservation: In response to voluntary conservation measures, the average daily consumption dropped by more than 2 million gallons per day last year, to about 19 mgd, Hanks reports. That cut revenue by $1.1 million, but city policy adamantly opposes making cuts in service or the staff needed to provide it.
“There’s other alternatives,” he notes, such as postponing minor projects. The recent Bee Tree ribbon cutting actually featured bottled Asheville water at lunch—but don’t look for it in stores just yet.
The Water Resources Department does bottle some water, but it’s strictly for use by thirsty repair crews, to deter them from unsanitary drink sharing, Hanks explains. The bottled water, he says, “has actually cut back on sick days by 50 to 60 percent”—thus saving the department money.
Leni Sitnick, who served as Asheville’s mayor from 1998-2001, remembers suggesting that the city try selling its water regionally or even nationwide “to add to the revenue stream and provide [local] jobs.” Sitnick also says she’s glad to see Bee Tree back in service. “I’ve always been in favor of a backup reservoir [and] a strong, award-winning efficiency program like we [once] had. Not just conservation but efficiency: fixing leaks and lines [and improving] meter-reading accuracy. All spell efficiency.”
Gary Semlak, who was vice chair of the Water Authority’s board from 1999-2002, recalls that the WET Force handed out retrofit kits and did a great deal to educate the public (including developing a kids’ program featuring Dr. Hydro and Professor Precipitation). The program was discontinued when the city was once again flush with water, but “If it weren’t for conservation efforts, we wouldn’t have made it through the droughts so well,” he says.
Even now, of course, it’s not all smooth sailing in the murky world of local water politics. In 2004, Asheville announced plans to pull out of its Water Agreement with Buncombe County. Despite intensive negotiations, the agreement and, by extension, the Regional Water Authority, were dissolved the following year. (See “Water Torture,” March 23, 2005, Xpress.) Meanwhile, Asheville’s lawsuit seeking to overturn Sullivan Acts II and III—enacted by state legislators immediately before the agreement expired—remains unresolved. Among other things, the disputed laws forbid the city to charge higher rates to out-of-town customers or to make voluntary annexation a requirement for water hookups.
Still, things could be much worse. Praising the foresight of those city leaders who bought the North Fork and Bee Tree watersheds way back when—and the residents who argued for better water quality while he was mayor—Bissette says: “Thank goodness. We’d be in a world of hurt otherwise.”
[Freelance writer Margaret V. Williams covered city politics and water issues for Xpress from 1994 to 2001. She returned to Xpress and served as managing editor till 2015.]