by John Boyle, avlwatchdog.org
In the wake of the 11-day holiday season water outage, the City of Asheville plans to hire multiple new employees, including a “valve team” and an engineer, as well as a public information officer for the water department.
Water Resources Department Director David Melton and Bill Hart, Water Production Division manager, made a presentation to Asheville City Council during an Aug. 22 work session on the Independent Review Committee’s report on the outage.
The five-person valve team is noteworthy because the IRC report, issued in June, said the Water Resources Department was informed about a year before the outage that a key, 24-inch valve in the River Arts District was likely closed, constricting water flow to the western part of the system. That, in conjunction with the freeze-up of the Mills River water plant and another key valve supplying the southern end of the system that was only 10% open, prevented the water department from being able to supply enough water to customers.
The IRC report said that the Water Resources Department staff should have treated the closed valve information with a “greater sense of urgency.” The IRC found “the wide scale, nature and duration of the outage event was largely avoidable and preventable.”
“The failure to locate the suspected closed 24-inch transmission valve in the River Arts District, possibly closed since April 2018, proved to be a major contributor to the event,” the IRC report stated, adding that it “could not determine a reasonable explanation for why the closed 24-inch valve was not found” until the crisis occurred.
However, while Melton told the IRC he took responsibility for the closed valves, in the Council meeting he appeared to disagree with the IRC report by suggesting that the 24-inch RAD valve wasn’t that important. Questioned by City Council member Antanette Mosley about the closed valve, Melton said that with so many waterline breaks during the outage — the city recorded 27 — the closed valve was not a key contributor to the holiday water crisis.
“We had breaks before we got to that valve which had to be fixed before technically we could open that valve up,” Melton said. “So, it was almost a blessing in disguise that the valve was closed.”
Of the 24-inch valve in the RAD, the report states: “The IRC is of the opinion that no one within the Water Resources Department fully appreciated how impactful such a closed valve could be to the system. That would have required someone fully understanding how the system is to be operated in high-demand situations.”
Melton is not a trained engineer.
The IRC report found that “Water Resources Department staff perhaps wasn’t convinced that a closed valve actually existed.”
Committee members previously told Asheville Watchdog that water workers were sent out to look for the closed valve but didn’t locate it. But they also said that if experienced department workers with historical knowledge of the system had been notified and sent out to search, they would have found it.
In the presentation, Melton said the five new positions for the “valve team” will allow the department to take a more active role in maintaining and checking valves. The system has 20,000 valves, including 500 that are 16 inches or larger, and just a three-person valve crew now.
The IRC’s Water Systems/Operations subcommittee recommended that the Water Resources Department should “invest in an effective Valve Assessment Program, especially for their water transmission line valves.”
Emphasis on engineering, valve team
Melton came to the water department in 2016 with a business background. In his presentation, Melton noted the department’s engineering division has eight employees, including three licensed professional engineers.
One of the professional engineers “will begin to take a more active role in water production projects and activities,” the presentation stated. The department also will request another engineering position for the 2025 fiscal year.
Melton told City Council the department will likely hire an entry-level engineer, freeing up a more senior-level employee to devote more time to water production issues.
Also, the department “is researching best practices across the water industry to improve the department’s knowledge retention strategies,” the presentation said. “The Engineering Division will be involved with this process.”
In his presentation, Melton said the five new positions for the valve team were approved in the 2024 fiscal year budget and should be on board this fall.
Also, Water Resources has begun the process of contracting for services to begin the large valve assessment program while new staff is hired and trained. This assessment will access and record valves 16 inches and larger to determine their condition, position and GPS coordinates, and make operational observations, according to the presentation.
The city is also installing advanced metering infrastructure for water customers, a $28 million project that began in May and will replace 63,000 water meters that provide much more precise information on usage and outages. Scheduled to be finished by the end of 2025, the project is 5% complete now.
The East Asheville Booster Pump Station also was a discussion point. The IRC report said the station, decommissioned in 2010 because of problems with its computer system, could have helped provide adequate water supply during the crisis. Hazen & Sawyer, the city’s consulting engineer on water, conducted modeling work and found that had the station been available during the outage, system pressures would have been improved, especially in the area of Haw Creek Junction.
Melton said Water Resources will have a study done on the station to see if it makes sense to bring it back online. This will take 18 months, Melton said.
Mills River plant getting upgrades
To deliver water daily to 156,000 people in Buncombe and northern Henderson counties, the Asheville Water Resources Department relies on two reservoirs with on-site water plants in northeastern Buncombe County and another plant on Mills River in northern Henderson County.
Asheville’s system is complex, with varying elevations and pressure zones, and it typically produces about 22 million gallons of water a day. At the start of the crisis, the system output had reached 28 million gallons a day.
The IRC report said the system still had plenty of capacity, even with the line breaks, but it could not deliver the water mainly because of the closed or mostly closed valves.
Hart said the department has taken numerous steps to ensure the Mills River water plant does not freeze up again, including having a vendor break down and reseal an actuator that completely froze up. The actuator is a motor-driven gearbox that opens or closes valves to allow the operation of filters.
Hart said the actuator that froze had old seals that leaked, allowing water inside that then froze in temperatures hovering around zero.
“It actually froze in place and froze the gears to a point where they couldn’t be opened,” Hart said, adding staff used boiling water and forced air to try to unfreeze the equipment. “And it took days to get them thawed out. Part of the reason was that the temperature was so low and the wind was blowing so hard, it was very, very difficult to get those thawed out.”
The service provider came and worked on them, finding there was still ice inside them a week and a half later.
“So, we had those cleaned out, they were repacked with grease, new seals were put in to make sure that that doesn’t happen again,” Hart said. “The supervisor has already set up this company to come back on the first of November. They will do this all over again for all of the outside actuators to ensure there’s no water in place [and] that these can’t freeze.”
Hart said the department has also bought a “great deal of heat tape” that will allow workers to maintain a higher temperature on this outdoor equipment.
Also contributing to the freeze was an aluminum sulfate line that froze up for unknown reasons. A caustic soda line also froze, Hart said.
“We replaced all of those lines,” Hart said. “And we now have a great deal of flexible line that can be run in pretty quick to restore those feeds if this would ever happen again.”
The system plans to replace those chemical lines again this November as an extra measure to prevent a future freeze. It will also add a heat blanket to an outside caustic soda tank to maintain a higher temperature and replace switchgear at the plant.
“So, we’re making changes that hopefully will make us more resilient,” Hart said.
The city is also revamping its emergency preparedness and communications plans in the wake of the outage and criticism about poor communications. The city’s recommendations in response to the IRC report are available here.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at 828-337-0941, or via email at email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.