Wanted: An 18-mile magic wand for Swannanoa Valley

Let’s say a giant fairy could grant Buncombe County one industrial-strength wish. What might that be? How about:

• More industry, which translates to more jobs and a bigger tax base?

• New apartment buildings, which would mean more decent, reasonably priced homes for people struggling to survive in a tight, overpriced rental market?

• Cleaner, less polluted rivers and streams?

Ironically, there is one single, mundane answer that can help Buncombe County get more of the things it seems to want the most. The answer: new sewer interceptors.

Sewer interceptors are large pipes that carry sewage from neighborhood 8-inch sewage-collection lines. They depend on gravity to carry everything we flush and pour down the drain to the ultimate destination: the sewage-treatment plant on Riverside Drive in Woodfin.

A sewer interceptor “is the backbone of the sewer system,” explains Bill Mull, general manager at the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County. Most people aren’t aware of them; most people don’t pay much attention. “Sewer is not very interesting,” Mull laments.

Unfortunately, the interceptor serving Swannanoa Valley is so small, so old and so full of leaks that it can’t handle the combined sewage of Black Mountain, Swannanoa and Montreat. In addition, heavy rains add to the flow, sometimes causing raw sewage to back up into the basements of justifiably peeved residents. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is leaning on MSD, threatening penalties, unless the interceptor is replaced — and pronto.

Another problem with the overburdened system is that it leaks into Swannanoa River and area streams, Mull says.

So MSD has made the Swannanoa interceptor its top priority. On April 15, MSD’s board unanimously approved a county-wide capital-improvement plan for spending $191 million over the course of the next five years.

The Swannanoa interceptor, alone, is expected to cost $40 million-plus before it’s finished, even though it’s only 18 miles long.

“First, you have to find what all’s out there,” Mull says, starting to fume. “There’s no maps for that darned thing.” Most sewer lines throughout the county were installed in the 1920s, he says, when governments and agencies didn’t keep maps of their pipes, because no one forced them to think ahead.

It’s the same way all over the country, according to Mull: Instead of obtaining permanent right-of-ways, local governments would often make informal agreements, providing sewer hook-ups to farmers’ homes in exchange for being allowed to run lines through fields and pastures. Long since forgotten, many of those old sewer lines now lie buried beneath housing subdivisions, roads, fast-food restaurants, drinking-water lines and various buried cables — all of which make repairs and replacements increasingly expensive.

North Carolina’s DENR is also pressuring MSD about the Swannanoa interceptor, to ensure the particularly difficult project gets completed, Mull says. Normally, interceptors are built in accordance with the topography, to enable gravity keep the waste moving toward the treatment plant. However, this 18-mile course is unusually long and flat, which makes it harder to design without mechanical pumps.

In the meantime, the overburdened interceptor has brought economic development in the Swannanoa Valley to a crawl. The state has threatened to fine MSD if it grants permits to new large developments, Mull says.

Every new area development is required to apply for a sewer-connection permit. In recent years, MSD has blocked requests to build apartment complexes, as well as one to build a county-fair complex near Black Mountain, because the interceptor can’t handle the additional load, according to Mull. (Individuals are still being granted connection permits for single-family homes.)

The agency spent $16.5 million on interceptor projects in the county, in the past year alone, and another $21 million in major projects are tentatively scheduled for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The costs of these are being divided between current user fees and the sale of revenue bonds — which means borrowing against future fees.

To help cover future construction costs, the MSD board may — surprise — raise sewer rates. Right now, the average household pays about $20 a month for sewer service, the actual amount being based on the quantity of drinking water used.

On May 20, the MSD board will decide whether to raise the sewer rate by 5 percent.

“There’s no question this has to be done,” Mull says. “We hope [sewer customers] will understand why it has to be done.”

A new home for MSD

How’s this for a good deal: The sewerage district can borrow money at 4.7 to 4.85 percent interest, while its investments are earning 5.5 percent overall.

That’s why Jim Fatland, MSD’s deputy general manager of administration, and consultant Denny Martin of Martin-McGill, agreed that MSD should borrow money in order to buy the former Carolina Power & Light building, instead of leasing it.

The CP&L building sits on the French Broad River, near the sewer-treatment plant The MSD board and staff are hoping to buy and renovate the building for about $4.3 million for use as a consolidated administration building.

“We do like the advantages of revenue bonds, as well as the ownership of the facility,” Fatland told MSD board members on April 15. The building already has received historic designation from the state of North Carolina; if it gets a federal historic designation, as well, it may be eligible for certain grants.

The CP&L proposal was referred to the finance committee for further mulling.

Do your part

Mark your calendar: The MSD Clean Streams Day is scheduled for May 2.

As part of the Adopt-A-Stream program, the sewerage district has agreed to clean up the banks of the French Broad River, from Ledges Park, three miles downstream of the sewage-treatment plant, to the Monticello Bridge.

Volunteers are needed that day to help from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Gloves, safety vests, drinks and doughnuts will be provided. People who sign up with MSD by April 24 will get a free T-shirt commemorating the occasion.

At least one-third of MSD’s 150 employees have promised to pitch in.

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