Wish I had a river

Don’t let the recent rains lull you into feeling safe: We still need more water, cautions Asheville Water Resources Director Tom Frederick.

Last year’s drought — while eased by heavier-than-usual January rains and more recent May showers — has sounded a warning bell. If summer rains slip below average, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson may once again have to mandate water restrictions, he explains.

“Out of the past 10 months, only one [provided] normal or above-normal rainfall: January,” Frederick told participants in an April 14 Leadership Asheville Forum. Normal rainfall through the summer wouldn’t completely fill the reservoirs, but could help us avoid another major crisis, he continued.

But, with or without a boost from Mother Nature, getting the new Mills River Water Treatment Plant up and running will definitely help: It’s expected to provide 5 million gallons per day, starting next month. “We can use this new supply source to cushion our needs. [And] we should continue our investment in Mills River: That’s our source for future growth,” reported Frederick.

Right now, Authority Chairman Charles Worley explained later, the sytem is near capacity: Customers are drawing nearly 22 million gallons per day. That’s a 5 percent reduction from the year before, thanks to conservation measures spurred by last summer’s drought, but it’s still perilously close to the total amount available from the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs, even in wet years (25 mgd). “The drought has made us more aware of conservation,” notes Worley.

Last summer, reservoir levels dropped to about 40 feet below the spillway — the lowest since an early 1980s drought, he recounts, adding, “[This] does re-emphasize our need to conserve and plan for the future.”

Mills River plant to come on line

Throughout the water system’s history, improvements and expansions have been largely drought-driven, Worley asserts: A water shortage in the early 1900s prompted the installation of a second Swannanoa River intake in 1910 and one at Bee Tree in 1916 (the same year, ironically, that a major flood wiped out the downtown river district); several decades later, another drought sparked the creation of the North Fork Reservoir (in 1955); and yet another dry spell in 1981 led officials to bring Bee Tree back on line (it had been converted to recreational use after North Fork was built).

“History tells us [that] growth catches up to capacity, then a drought spurs action,” Worley remarks. The ’80s dry spell prompted the search for a new water source: Initially, the plan was to tap the French Broad River, but the bond issue needed to fund a new treatment plant was defeated in a 1989 referendum, amid fears about contaminated water, he continues. After much debate and various plans, the cleaner Mills River was chosen as the most feasible alternative, in the mid-1990s, and the Authority partnered with Henderson County (where the new plant is located) to start the planning process.

The $33 million plant is slated to begin pumping water in July — almost seven months behind schedule — reports Worley. But its initial 5-mgd draw is just a drop in the bucket, in terms of meeting the anticipated future needs, and the Authority is already planning to ask the state for permission to pump up to 7.5 mgd from the Mills River. The new plant is capable of delivering that much water now — if it passes a series of state tests, he explains.

The state approval process could take up to a year, according to former Water Authority and Metropolitan Sewerage District board member Dr. Richard Maas, a UNCA environmental-science professor. “We should go to 7.5 mgd as soon as possible and use the Mills River to the max,” urges Maas. The river itself can yield up to 20 mgd, but the plant would have to be expanded to tap that capacity. “With global warming causing more-frequent droughts, it would be wise for us to go ahead with [expansion plans],” he adds. Especially during periodic dry spells, the Authority could draw more heavily on the Mills, while leaving the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs as full as possible, Maas suggests.

Frederick agrees, and he anticipates having to expand the not-yet-operational facility within the next 12 years. At that point, the Mills should be able to satisfy local needs for the next 30 to 40 years, he calculates.

Tapping the French Broad

Maas concurs with that assessment. And, because the new plant sits near the confluence of the Mills and the French Broad River, he notes, the French Broad is a logical source for the next millennium.

But water-quality advocates fought against tapping the French Broad as a water source when the Authority proposed it, in the 1980s, and the state classifies it as a significantly less-pristine source than the Mills. Is Maas worried about using the French Broad?

“We would only use the French Broad in times of drought, and I’m very optimistic that [current] industrial discharges into the French Broad will be a thing of the past, 40 years from now,” Maas replies. He also emphasizes that the Mills River intake is upriver from some of the major industrial dischargers into the French Broad.

Worley, well familiar with concerns about water quality in the French Broad, admits to feeling some relief that the question of drawing from it lies far in the future. For the moment, he’s focusing on getting the Mills River plant on line.

And Maas, for his part, is focusing on improving water quality in the Mills: Last year, a student of his documented that parts of the river are devoid of insect life, probably due to pesticide spills or runoff. A number of farms and plant nurseries line the river banks within a mile-and-a-half of the water intake. And several pesticide-mixing stations, in particular, were linked to the lack of insect life in the water near those farms, Maas recounts.

But, after learning about this report and being pressured by water-quality advocates, several Authority members pushed for seeking state grant funds to fix the problem. In cooperation with Henderson County officials and the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, the Authority received $729,000, which Maas says will cover the cost of relocating the pesticide stations, buffering the river from farming and other runoff problems, and coming up with a plan for managing growth in the watershed.

“The pesticide-mixing stations were the one flaw [in using the Mills River as a water source]. But a lot of people have worked together and got the farmers to work with us,” says Maas. “Since [the Mills] is going to be one of our main water supplies, it’s important that we carefully manage growth in the watershed,” he adds. For example, “package” sewage-treatment plants — small, automated systems that typically treat sewage for small businesses or commercial dischargers, such as restaurants or rest homes — are common along the river, says Maas. But they’re prone to problems — if there’s a spill or leak, contamination of the river can occur before the problem is detected, he explains. “Ultimately, it would be better to provide sewer service to the area,” Maas suggests.

The grant funds, notes Frederick, will also pay for developing a master plan for the Mills River watershed, to help the Authority identify and prioritize needed projects. That process will include surveying current land uses along the river and inspecting the watershed for signs of erosion, runoff and other problems. In addition, some of that $729,000 is already earmarked for projects that will help address these issues.

“Our long-range plan is to protect the watershed,” says Worley. Unlike the completely protected North Fork and Bee Tree watersheds, residential and commercial development already exist along the Mills, particularly in the last few miles upriver from the French Broad. That makes Mills River water more expensive to treat than the near-pristine reservoir waters, Worley mentions. “Our challenge is how to let the [existing] agricultural uses coexist with the residential and watershed uses — in a way that’s beneficial to all and is environmentally safe and sound,” he says.

“The first thing to do is involve everyone: There’s no way you can walk in and dictate to everybody,” Worley observes, noting that the farmers, businesses and many residents along the Mills River have been there for quite a while. “We all have an interest in protecting the environment,” he adds.

In the meantime, Worley, Frederick and Maas are simply hoping for continued rain — and all three urge customers to continue conserving. Wise and efficient use of our water supply, they point out, could delay the need to spend millions more on expanding the Mills River plant (or having to draw from the French Broad, for that matter). “We’re still in a stage where we’re requiring voluntary conservation, and we’re probably going to continue [that] through the rest of the year — unless we get substantial rain,” says Worley.

Meanwhile, Citizens for Safe Drinking Water representative Hazel Fobes jokes, “I don’t enjoy watering my garden anymore — I think of poor Tom Frederick.” She also urges customers, “Don’t get too loose with the turning on of the hoses!” Fobes also called on Authority members to do a better job of informing the public about what the agency does — and why.

Those tips aside, there’s one more little thing in the Authority’s favor, when it comes to avoiding another water shortage: “According to our … data from the National Climatic Data Center, [the Mills River] has never dried up,” says David Peterson, construction manager for the new plant.

“History tells us [that] growth catches up to capacity, then a drought spurs action,” says Authority Chairman Charles Worley.

“I’ve had enough of just mending all the leaks. … The time is past … to do something” — Citizens for Safe Drinking Water Chair Hazel Fobes.

Authority approves 8-percent rate increase

Time may be money, but water isn’t cheap, either: Fixing leaky water lines costs $1 million per mile. Bringing the new Mills River Treatment Plant on line will increase water-production costs by nearly $500,000. The budget for relocating water lines in connection with state road projects will nearly triple this year, from $90,000 to $260,000. The dam at Bee Tree Reservoir needs a $5 million fix, mandated by the state. The Water Maintenance Building needs urgent repairs ($260,000). And, by the way, we’re not out of drought danger yet.

So the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson has elected to swallow tough medicine: They’re raising water rates by 8 percent, offsetting increased operating costs by re-engineering, asking the state for a $3 million grant — and praying for continued rainfall.

“All of us are concerned about an 8-percent rate increase: We don’t like doing it,” Authority Chair Charles Worley remarked when board members adopted the budget on May 18. “We expect critics. … But [let them] tell us where they would cut [the budget], if they were in our shoes. … We have a leaky water system, [and] we have to address that,” he declares.

“We felt that we ought to address, more intensely, the [problems] the public has complained about,” added fellow board member Jack Tate, a Henderson County appointee. To that end, Authority members increased the amount to be set aside for water-line repairs, replacements and improvements, to $878,473.

Last year, the Authority budgeted less than $600,000 for such work. And, during the two years before that, no money was allocated for it, Water Resources Director Tom Frederick noted during the May 5 public hearing on the budget. Fewer than a half-dozen area residents attended the session, but Frederick mentioned, “There’s some concern that the Authority’s not doing enough to replace old water lines. … We need to be more proactive — replacing leaky valves, for example, instead of patching them.”

And that, in turn, means the Authority needs more revenue. In addition to raising rates, the Authority approved increases in delinquent-payment fees, the charge for new water taps, development fees and reconnection charges. Development — or impact — fees will not increase until September, reported Frederick.

Authority member Tom Sobol, who’s also chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, observed that 1.5 percent of the rate increase will fund “nonbetterment costs” — money paid to or because of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, when state road projects force the relocation of water lines.

The Authority is the only local-government water utility in the state which the DOT doesn’t fully reimburse for these costs. At the Authority’s request, the local legislative delegation has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would rectify that situation. In the meantime, said Worley, “We are being forced — and I emphasize, forced — to pay for the DOT nonbetterment costs. We are [also] being forced by the state to do something about [the] Bee Tree [Reservoir dam].”

The cost of repairing that dam’s spillway is estimated at $5 million, Frederick reported. “We simply cannot, on a pay-as-you-go basis, do this [project]. The [resulting] rate increase would be phenomenal,” he told Authority members on May 18. Frederick recommended that, next year, the Authority issue $11 million in bonds to fund the dam repairs and other system improvements.

The few people who did show up May 5 to learn about the Authority’s new budget urged the agency to do a better job of informing the public, fixing leaky lines and reducing unaccounted-for water (25 percent of the current water supply is lost — to leaks, meter inaccuracies, or fire emergencies). “I’ve had enough of just mending all the leaks. … The time is past … to do something,” proclaimed Citizens for Safe Drinking Water representative Hazel Fobes.

Frederick explained that Water Resources staff are working on a step-by-step process for identifying top-priority needs, checking meters for inaccuracies, replacing leaky lines and making other system improvements. “We have to be committed over the long term, [because] we’re not going to renew the system in one or two years,” he said.

Buncombe County resident Don Yelton said he’d rather support $18 million in water-system bonds than an equivalent amount for parks. “Water is more important,” he argued. Yelton also urged the Authority to start charging city and county governments for water (the Authority now spends 7.5 percent of its revenues making payments to both the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, in lieu of taxes). In addition, the DOT, he notes, should pay relocation costs, and the Authority should clarify exactly how much of the unaccounted-for water is lost to leaks.

And, if the General Assembly does vote to make the DOT pay, continued Yelton, then the Authority should lop 1.5 percent off the rate increase — or earmark that money for improvements.

No one disagreed with the latter concept. And, on May 18, Authority members voted 7-0 to adopt the new budget. The Buncombe County commissioners approved it as well, on June 1. Asheville Council members are set to review it on June 8. [The Water Agreement mandates that City Council and the Buncombe commissioners approve the budget each year; Henderson County approval is not required.]

Here’s a breakdown of the increases:

• Single-family residential customers will now pay $3.12 per cubic foot of water used. A customer who pays $38.87 every other month will now pay $41.97.

• Multifamily residential customers: $2.54 per ccf.

• Nonresidential customers, up to 1,000 ccf: $2.60 per ccf.

• Nonresidential customers, over 1,000 ccf: $1.16 per ccf.

• And the billing charge will increase from $4.19 to $4.53 per bill.

Copies of the 1999-2000 budget are available at the Water Resources Department, mezzanine level, City Hall, 259-5955.

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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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