Getting to the source of the matter

Regional Water Authority board members just put their money where their mouths are: On May 19, they voted unanimously to include a $33,000 line-item in the coming year’s budget — in order to move several pesticide-mixing stations away from the banks of the Mills River. Those mixing stations are upstream from the Authority’s new water-treatment plant.

On a motion from board member Tom Sobol, members voted unanimously to commit the money, as the Authority’s local share in a three-year, $400,000 grant project. Sobol also made sure to include in his motion a statement of the Authority’s intent to repeat the $33,000 funding in each of the two successive years.

Several months ago, Authority members heard a report from local environmental advocates, Citizens for Safe Drinking Water. They presented results from tests of aquatic life in the Mills River: Just downstream from two agricultural pesticide-mixing stations, aquatic life was almost non-existent, whereas upstream, the river supports a wide variety of organisms.

The group’s representatives contended that their findings suggest that chemical contamination from the mixing stations is endangering the quality of drinking water that will begin flowing from the Authority’s new treatment plant next year. CSDW called for the mixing stations to be moved away from the river’s edge.

The report stirred debate late last year: Former board member Michael J. Edney, one of two Henderson County representatives on the Authority, insisted that the farmers involved shouldn’t have to pay for relocating their stations because they were not violating any state or federal water-quality regulations. Other board members questioned the validity of the group’s report.

Camp, Dresser & McKee — the engineering firm responsible for designing and constructing the Authority’s new water-treatment plant — insisted that the facility’s state-of-the-art ozonation and carbon-filtration systems could deal with “a number” of pesticides and other chemical contaminants.

In February, Authority members sought help in relocating the mixing stations: They asked the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund to pay $190,000, the entire relocation cost. The Fund denied that request, noting the lack of local contribution and regional cooperation.

Subsequently, in mid-March, Henderson County Soil & Water Conservation District officials suggested that the Authority join with them in a joint grant application to fund not only the relocation of the mixing stations, but also erosion-prevention and buffering projects along most of Mills River. However, the Authority did not immediately respond to this suggestion.

As time wore on, CSDW chair Hazel Fobes became concerned that the Authority might be contemplating no further action. “There’s no way we could let that treatment plant go online — no matter how state-of-the-art it is — with pesticides being mixed just upstream, at the river’s edge,” she said.

But some Authority members felt strongly that the mixing stations ought to be moved. Authority member Leslee Thornton, who seconded Sobol’s recent funding motion, began helping write a new grant proposal — this time with local financial support included. “This [second] grant attempt is more comprehensive than the first,” said Thornton, recently appointed to the Authority by Asheville City Council.

After a presentation from Camp, Dresser & McKee on May 19, Authority Chair Charles Worley spoke up, saying that good drinking water requires two things: excellent treatment and source protection.

But only $23,000 had been budgeted for the moving the stations. Wanting to make sure the Authority committed more, Sobol worded his motion to call for to a specific $33,000 line-item in the 1998-’99 budget, which begins July 1.

Worley asked staff if the Authority could commit another $10,000. New Water Resources Director Tom Richardson said yes — but that the funds would have to be taken from already-committed pipeline and distribution projects, which total about $500,000.

Authority members consented to shifting the needed $10,000, voting 8-0 in favor of Sobol’s motion (Authority member Wendell Begley was absent).

After the decision, Forrest Westall, regional supervisor of water quality for the state Division of Water Quality, applauded the Authority’s commitment to a joint, comprehensive grant project.

“Protecting water quality is a good idea,” Westall told board members. He called the Mills River the best-available new water source for Henderson and Buncombe counties, but he added, “Source protection continues to be important.”

Thornton welcomes the Authority’s decision, saying it is the beginning of a more comprehensive approach, with a better chance of protecting the river. And the farmers, who are key players in protecting the river, will be more willing to participate, she contends.

After the Authority meeting, Worley agreed, saying it is far better to coordinate Mills River projects with all the players: Henderson County, the Water Authority, local farmers and other property owners along the river, as well as state water-quality officials. Sobol also agreed.

Thornton is co-writing the new grant application with Sally Stokes, director of the Mountain Valley Resources and Conservation Development Council. To further strengthen the overall request, Thornton has also received a tentative commitment of $50,000 from a local foundation.

The Authority’s cash commitment will strengthen its chances of receiving state funding, either later this year or in early 1999, according to Westall at the Division of Water Quality.

After the Authority’s vote, Western North Carolina Alliance community organizer Abby Gage pointed out that cleaning up the river before it enters the treatment plant should save the Authority money in the long run, because it would make the new facility’s carbon filtering system last longer.

Bill Dowbiggin, project engineer with Camp, Dresser & McKee, had explained that the system would need to be recharged about once every two year, at a cost of about $100,000. The time between required recharges should increase if the river is cleaner, he said.

Apparently, the board had not been aware of the financial impacts of a cleaner river on filter maintenance. Just after the meeting, Authority member Ann Davis told Gage, “We should have heard that at our [earlier] budget meeting.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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