Manheimer addresses county board on water outages

Esther Manheimer
UNDER FIRE OVER WATER: Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer answered questions about the city's handling of recent water outages at a Jan. 3 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting. Photo courtesy of Manheimer

The passive voice was employed by Mayor Esther Manheimer as she fielded questions from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners regarding the city’s recent water outages. Describing the chain of events that led to tens of thousands of residents being without water during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season — some for more than a week — Manheimer said “decisions were made” about how to handle a breakdown at the city’s Mills River water treatment plant.

During the board’s Jan. 3 meeting, Manheimer explained that the plant’s intake had frozen over on Christmas Eve, cutting off its water production of roughly 3.5 million gallons per day. That amount represents about 16% of the system’s normal daily demand of 22 million gallons.

“It was not immediately thought that this would be an emergency because the rest of the system is able to produce enough water” under normal conditions, Manheimer continued. But systemwide leaks caused by frozen pipes, combined with high water use by residents at home over the holidays, meant daily demand was closer to 28 million gallons — over 27% more than normal.

To prevent that demand from draining citywide reserves and potentially placing all of Asheville under a boil-water advisory, Manheimer said, “there were decisions made to isolate service areas.” Customers in the water system’s southern areas thus became dependent on the Mills River plant to recharge their supply, but city staffers took longer than expected to get the facility back online.

Manheimer didn’t specify who had made those decisions or when they had taken place; she did say that she hadn’t been notified of the Mills River situation until Dec. 26, two days after it occurred, and hadn’t spoken with staff about the issue until Dec. 27. City Manager Debra Campbell did not speak at the city’s first press conference on the water outages Dec. 28, and an email to her that day was returned with an out-of-office message. Asheville’s water resources director is David Melton.

Commissioner Al Whitesides said the city’s outages were just the latest failures in a decadeslong pattern of mismanagement. “I’ve been back home since ’71, and this has been every winter. It’s been a constant problem,” he said. “We’re not doing what we need to do, and it’s not fair to the citizens of Asheville. Our taxes aren’t cheap here.”

In response to recent events, Manheimer said the city would convene a review committee consisting of independent experts and water system customers. Once formed, the group would prepare a 30-day report on the latest outages, as well as a 90-day report with recommendations on long-term capital needs, city communications and crisis response.

Asheville City Council was expected to vote on creating the committee during its Tuesday, Jan. 10, meeting. Both the city and county would then appoint several members; Manheimer said exact details of the committee’s size and makeup had yet to be determined.

Economic update shows lagging Buncombe wages

After hearing a sobering presentation on Buncombe County poverty in August, the board asked staffers to dive more deeply into the county’s economic situation. The resulting update shows that an existing wage gap between Buncombe and the rest of North Carolina worsened starting in 2021.

According to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by the county, average weekly wages in Buncombe lagged after the state average by about $150 from 2018-20. In 2021, that gap increased to $175, while in the first quarter of 2022 — the latest period for which data is available — it jumped to $271.

Although Buncombe’s unemployment rate of 3% is the lowest in the state, many of those jobs pay low wages. The county’s report estimates that 40% of workers in the Asheville metropolitan area earned less than $17.30 per hour, the living wage certified by Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics, in 2021.

Asked by Commissioner Terri Wells why Buncombe’s wages were flattening against the North Carolina average, county analyst Matt Baker pointed to the makeup of new employment opportunities elsewhere in the state.

“North Carolina generally is having a technology boom. However, primarily, that technology boom that is lifting wages across the state is centered in areas such as Charlotte, Wilmington and Research Triangle Park. Asheville is not among those,” Baker said. “I would speculate … that it has to do more with our industrial makeup than it does anything else.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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2 thoughts on “Manheimer addresses county board on water outages

  1. dyfed

    No surprise there, Asheville’s residents have actively fought any industry that isn’t arts, health, or food service, and only one of those pays well.

  2. Mike Rains

    The Review Committee commitment is a very strong acknowledgment by city leaders that “other eyes” (hopefully qualified, independent and critical) are needed to turn things around so we don’t have anymore of these widespread and devastating events.

    The selection of participants will be the key, as well as what they are mandated (or allowed) to accomplish.

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