Since March 26, the flow from many Asheville faucets has been muddy at best and nonexistent at worst — adjectives that some customers say also apply to the city’s communication about problems with its water system. On April 2, city leaders called a press conference to clear up the latter issue while promising to work “around the clock” on fixing the former.
“There has been significant disruption to people’s lives, to their business establishments. We hope to do better,” said City Manager Debra Campbell.
Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball explained that the problems resulted from two separate but closely timed incidents. The first, a repair to a major line near the North Fork Reservoir, caused major sediment infiltration into city systems and turned the water what a city press release called “a tea color.” She estimated that roughly 5% of water customers — about 5,000 people — were still affected but that all systems would return to normal by Friday, April 5.
The second incident, Ball said, took place in the early morning of April 1 after the failure of material used in a River Arts District water line repair. While the city had issued a boil water advisory on March 31 for five residents scheduled to lose service as a result of that repair, the unexpected line break left many more customers without water or official notification of what had happened.
“We understand that we did not provide detailed enough information to help people understand what they needed to do,” Ball acknowledged. She proceeded to emphasize that the boil water advisory had been lifted for all customers except those on sections of Lyman Street and Warren Wilson Road. As of April 3, those advisories had also been lifted.
Responding to a question about the lack of an AVL Alert message about the wider outage, Communications & Public Engagement Director Dawa Hitch said the city would undertake a “process improvement” to send alerts over larger areas in the event of a major water line issue.
In response to an Xpress request for documentation of the city’s current alert process after the meetin, Hitch provided two documents on April 9 describing the use of Everbridge (the software program that powers AVL Alerts) and the standard operating procedure for boil water advisories.
“As the protocol shows, part of the process in sending an alert is identifying a geographic area. For the two recent events, notifications went out to a geographic area in proximity to the break but not to the entire geographic area served by city of Asheville water,” Hitch noted. “An AVL Alert to the entire geographic area served by the utility would have been better communication and will be our practice moving forward.”
On April 12, city spokesperson Polly McDaniel also provided a list of 107 email addresses that have permissions to send external messages via AVL Alert. Of those names, 50 were associated with the city’s water system; the city’s standard operating procedure for boil water advisories designates two employees as responsible for weekday alerts and says that the “duty officer or management on call are responsible for Everbridge during nights/weekends.”
Water Resources Director David Melton said customers may need to flush their water lines and hot water heaters to clear residual sediment. He said that city staff would work to make billing adjustments for customers who used additional water for this purpose but added that the adjustments might not be reflected on account statements for up to two months. Officials said there were no plans to recompense business customers, such as hotels and breweries, that had lost income as a result of the water problems.
Melton emphasized that testing by a city contractor had confirmed that all water not under a boil advisory was free from bacteria and safe to drink. However, he noted, “we understand that it’s unpalatable and the appearance is not what we’re used to in the city of Asheville.”
Edited April 12 at 3:10 p.m. to reflect additional information about the AVL Alert system.