Asheville City Council

Rain has been in short supply this fall; since September, the Asheville area has had about 6 inches less rainfall than average, according to the National Weather Service.

Interesting, then, that on the very night a light rain finally fell on Asheville, City Council waded into a flood of water-related issues. Consider these agenda items from the Nov. 15 work session: water system operations and improvements, a new storm-water utility, and a plan to install shelters at city bus stops (presumably to protect riders from any rain that might decide to fall in the future). Many of these issues will be familiar to longtime local water watchers, who have seen various government entities wrestle with how to fix the aging infrastructure for many years with little sign of progress.

The cost of clean water

In January, Asheville will begin billing owners of developed property in the city for collecting and treating stormwater runoff, as required by an unfunded federal mandate channeled through the states. The new fee will cost owners of single-family homes $28.08 annually; owners of commercial and industrial property will pay according to how much impervious surface their facilities contain.

The city has known it would eventually have to begin treating stormwater since the early 1990s, City Engineer Cathy Ball told Xpress. And a 1997 amendment to the Clean Water Act called for gradually phased-in stormwater controls, based on city population.

When rainwater washes off impervious surfaces such as roofs, streets or parking lots, it carries with it pollutants such as oil, gasoline and other petroleum products. The present storm-drain system delivers those chemicals straight into local waterways, along with eroded soil sediment that can clog up stream ecosystems.

Some have dubbed the new utility the “rain tax.” Ball, however, takes issue with the term. “This has a direct relationship to the quality of water we have,” she told Council.

As part of its education effort, the city has sent out 19,000 copies of a brochure titled “We All Live Downstream.” Untreated stormwater, it explains, contaminates drinking-water sources, causes fish kills, sickens swimmers and disrupts aquatic habitats. And poorly maintained storm drains can also contribute to flash flooding.

The money will be used to help maintain storm drains and treat stormwater before it’s released into streams. In the past, Ball explained, the drains have not been maintained at the optimum level due to funding constraints. The funds will also beef up enforcement of existing laws designed to combat erosion and illegal dumping.

But paying more money to the government is never popular, and the issue remains controversial, even though the city has little choice in the matter. Although the federal government cannot force states and cities to take action, it can threaten to withhold resources such as highway funding, noted Assistant City Attorney Martha McGlohon. In a later interview, she said that constitutional issues concerning states’ rights get in the way of outright federal intervention, but, “Should you fail to do this, there are possible repercussions.”

Council member Jan Davis said he’s heard some negative response from local business owners and manufacturers who say industry may flee the city to avoid the fee, which is drastically higher for large facilities. “It is a whole different thing when you’re talking about a huge building,” said Davis, who also worried that the revenue might be used for other city projects. But City Manager Gary Jackson said the funds will be used only to treat stormwater and will be easily traceable in an audit.

That didn’t satisfy Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, however, who was adamant that the feds had overstepped their bounds. “They do not have any constitutional authority to be doing this,” he declared.

Other local groups take a more positive view. RiverLink’s board of directors, for example, approved a resolution supporting the plan back in February. (For more information on the stormwater utility, see www.ci.asheville.nc.us/engineer/stormwater/main.htm.)

Plugging the hole

That wasn’t the only costly water problem on the agenda, however. Asheville’s leaky water system is losing a huge amount of treated drinking water every day, a consultant told City Council. After a two-year study, the engineering firm Brown and Caldwell reported that the city is badly in need of a capital-improvements fund to repair and upgrade its water system.

“The time has come for action,” consultant Richard Stahr told Council members. In his detailed report, Stahr dissected the problems facing the city’s antiquated water system, concluding that repairs will be expensive — but waiting would cost even more.

“Right now, we haven’t been putting any money back into our water program,” long-running Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks told Xpress. “This is really just to get our infrastructure back where it needs to be.”

The news is hardly new. Brown and Caldwell has repeatedly made such recommendations since being hired in 2002 by the now-defunct Regional Water Authority, which was dissolved when the city withdrew from the Water Agreement back in June. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners (which, like City Council, had veto power over the agency’s budget) nixed rate hikes proposed in 2003. The next year, the commissioners shot down another attempt to raise rates to fund desperately needed repairs (which was opposed by Council members Brian Peterson and Joe Dunn, both of whom then served on the Authority’s board). Dunn, who’s due to come off Council in the wake of an unsuccessful campaign for mayor, was not present at the Nov. 15 meeting.

But with the ball now firmly in the city’s court, it remains to be seen whether Asheville will take action on the consultants’ recommendations.

Mumpower, meanwhile, wondered how the city’s continuing dispute over the derailed Water Agreement would affect these issues, but City Attorney Bob Oast told Council that the current lawsuit would not interfere with the rate hikes.

Leaks in the city’s 1,200 miles of pipes allow 6.5 million gallons of water to be lost every day, reported Stahr. A healthy system, he noted, loses about 2.7 million gallons per day. Stahr also emphasized the additional strain placed on the city’s economy by frequent water failures and piecemeal repairs. “There’s a real tangible economic loss with these water interruptions” in terms of property damage and lost business hours, he said.

Fixing the system, said Stahr, will cost an estimated $58 million over seven years. To come up with the money, he recommended water-rate increases ranging from $3.50 per month for residential customers with the smallest meters up to $1,430 per month for industrial and business customers who use the most water.

Stahr’s report did contain some good news: The estimated cost of upgrades at the North Fork and Bee Tree water-treatment plants, initially placed at $12 million, now look to run between $6 million and $7 million. The upgrades will bring the Bee Tree plant, closed six years ago, back online and bring both plants in compliance with federal turbidity standards.

Stahr urged Council members to schedule a vote on the plan for the Nov. 22 formal session so the new rates could take effect in January. But Mumpower worried about the public’s reaction, and the city manager advised Council to allow time for public education and input before making a decision on the plan.

Already on the agenda for Nov. 22 is a $692,835 budget amendment to fund studies of the dam and reservoir systems and stream monitoring in the Swannanoa River watershed to determine what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of last year’s disastrous flooding.

In out of the rain

Waiving the usual work-session rules, City Council unanimously approved an initiative to place covered bus stops around the city. The plan, still in its formative stage, was introduced by Mumpower and co-sponsored by Davis and Dunn.

The initiative would be a partnership involving the city, local businesses and residents, Mumpower explained. Companies would supply the materials at cost, and civic groups such as the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries and neighborhood associations would contribute volunteer labor, he said. Mumpower offered to arrange the needed permits, in hopes of installing the first shelter in December.

Details of the plan must still be worked out with the Transit Board, but Mumpower told Xpress that anyone interested in should contact him via e-mail (drmumpower@aol.com).

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