Jade Dundas is no stranger to uncertainty. Having worked with municipal water systems for more than 20 years, he’s learned the hard way that no amount of technical know-how can predict exactly when and where the next leak might occur.
But as the legal battle for control of Asheville’s water system plays out in the courts, Dundas, who came on board as the city’s new water resources director in July, must contend with a different kind of uncertainty.
On Nov. 25, the N.C. Supreme Court granted the city a temporary stay of enforcement of an October Court of Appeals decision. The stay indefinitely halts the state-mandated transfer of the city’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County, which the appeals court had upheld.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering whether it will hear Asheville’s latest petition, filed Nov. 24. City Attorney Robin Currin says it’s “impossible to predict” when the court will announce its decision.
Who’s in charge?
Asheville’s legal team is arguing that the Legislature’s transfer of the system is an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation. The city also asserts that the state constitution gives local governments control of certain functions related to health and sanitation.
Also on Nov. 25, the International Municipal Lawyers Association asked permission to file a friend of the court brief in the case. “A chief concern of municipalities is providing the infrastructure and public services that are essential to the health, safety and welfare of local citizens,” the association wrote. “Among these essential services is the provision of clean, abundant and affordable water.” Currin says other entities have also expressed interest in filing documents that support Asheville’s arguments.
With about 150 employees and an annual operating budget of over $35 million, the Water Resources Department serves more than 124,000 customers in Buncombe and Henderson counties. Asked how he manages a task of that magnitude in the face of such uncertainty about the ownership of the resource, however, Dundas seems unruffled. “Our responsibility is to deliver the water to meet our system’s daily requirements, and that’s what we concentrate on every day,” the Kansas native says simply.
A full plate
Whatever the future may hold, the department is moving ahead with plans for maintaining and improving the water system. On Nov. 17, City Council approved $7.6 million to replace water mains in several older residential areas and $2 million to renovate a recently purchased office and warehouse building at 200 Bingham Road.
Once those renovations are complete, the water maintenance and meter service divisions will move to Bingham Road. A city-owned brick building adjacent to the current offices of those divisions at 172 S. Charlotte St. will be leased to White Labs, which provides yeast and related supplies to breweries, wineries and distilleries.
Depending on the results of a needs analysis, the department’s customer service group, now located in City Hall, may move to the new building as well, notes Dundas.
Meanwhile, he also oversees a geographic information systems division that’s responsible for continually updating water system maps and plans, and an engineering division with offices in the city’s Development Services Center at 161 S. Charlotte St.
Up through the ranks
Dundas, his wife and their three children moved to Asheville this summer from Sioux City, Iowa, where he’d served as assistant city manager and public works director since 2010. For two years before that, he was Sioux City’s utilities director. Dundas started his career installing and replacing meters for the city of Wichita, Kan. Over the course of 14 years, he worked his way up the ranks, eventually serving as that city’s utilities director.
These days, though, “I don’t go in the hole anymore,” he says with a laugh.
Dundas earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental sciences from Kansas State University and a master’s in business administration from Wichita State University.
It doesn’t flow uphill
The biggest differences between Asheville’s water system and those in the Midwest, says Dundas, are all about topography. Because of our mountainous terrain, our water system must withstand far greater pressures than systems in the flatlands. We also have more feet of pipe per person, he explains. Despite those challenges, though, Asheville’s Water Resources Department works hard to maintain cost-effectiveness, he says, to keep water rates comparable to those in other cities.
As for the quality, “This is by far the best water that I’ve been responsible for, because the source is so pristine.”
And unlike many communities, Asheville also has an ample supply of water. Although the number of customer accounts has increased significantly in recent years, overall water usage has remained about the same. Many of the industrial users that were the system’s biggest customers have left the area over the past two decades.
But what about our burgeoning beer industry?
“Breweries don’t use as much water as you might imagine,” says Dundas. Other industries, he continues, use more water for things like cooling, producing steam or cleaning, even though those processes aren’t evident in the finished product. Low-flow plumbing fixtures and other conservation measures have also helped reduce demand, he adds.
And though his hardworking customer service employees do field their share of complaints, Dundas says he’s learned another surprising thing about Asheville: Customers here often call in to thank the department for doing a good job or to praise the crews’ courtesy and considerateness. “It’s reassuring and refreshing,” says Dundas.
Down the road
Despite the system’s uncertain future, Dundas says he’s not drawing up contingency plans just yet. “Right now, we’re focused on the appeals process,” he explains. The city’s latest legal filing cites Dundas’ estimate that a transfer would take “at least a year.”
Issues that would need to be resolved include:
- Transferring the contracts of the department’s 148 employees.
- Nontransferrable federal and state health-and-safety certifications.
- Transferring the financial, accounting and information technology systems.
- Training new employees.
- The city’s water-related bond debt, which is financed by system revenues.
Rather than worrying about what may come, however, Dundas and his team are looking ahead to a major service upgrade for the Fairview area. The project, which will improve water pressure and support recent growth in the area, will follow U. S. Highway 74.
Also in the works are improvements to the dam, equipment and structures at the North Fork Reservoir. Together, these projects will cost an estimated $40 million, to be financed by yet-to-be-issued revenue bonds.
Meanwhile, on the customer service front, Dundas is working with the engineering staff to reduce the turnaround time when someone applies for water service. To that end, the department also plans to add another staff position.
And despite these challenges, Dundas says he’s happy to be here. “This is a unique situation, working in and supporting the demands of a thriving and growing community,” he points out. Come what may, the steady Midwesterner expects to keep delivering nearly 20 million gallons of water a day to residents and businesses in Asheville and beyond.
On the same day this article went to press in our print edition (Dec. 7), the State of North Carolina filed “A motion to dismiss the City of Asheville’s purported appeal based upon alleged constitutional questions & the State’s response in opposition to the City’s petition for discretionary review.”