Though they’ve been neighbors for years, James Heinl and Sarah Bivins tend to meet face to face only at local events. That’s because they live across from each other on the Ivy River: Heinl, a general contractor, built his Buncombe County home in 2017, whereas Bivins’ Laughing River Farm (est. 2013) is in Madison County. The river, which measures at most 35 feet across between their properties, serves as the boundary.
Heinl and Bivins share another neighbor just upriver: the Lawrence T. Sprinkle Jr. Water Treatment Facility, which provides about half of the more than 4,500 residents of the town of Weaverville and over 1,000 customers beyond town limits with clean drinking water. In operation since 1996, the plant can draw a maximum of 1.5 million gallons of water per day from the Ivy — an amount that would fill over 37,000 bathtubs and weigh over 6,250 tons.
Both Bivins and Heinl have noted dips in the river’s flow over the last couple of years. “In the summertime, we go tubing,” Bivins says. “But lately, it’s like there’s not enough water in the river, so you have to get out and carry yourself over rocks.” So when Bivins told Heinl in August that Weaverville Town Council was considering expanding the plant to a capacity of 3 million GPD, he immediately became concerned.
Heinl read all he could about the expansion, including a 2017 engineering report that estimated the project would cost $7 million. He started the nonprofit Save Ivy River to advocate for alternative ways of increasing the town’s water capacity. And he was in the audience at the Weaverville Town Council Oct. 12, when Asheville engineering firm WithersRavenel delivered an updated cost estimate: approximately $13 million, almost double the 2017 quote.
“If they’d come back with a 30% increase [in cost], I think it would have passed that night,” Weaverville Council member Andrew Nagle says. Instead, the council decided to take a step back. Nagle, Vice Mayor Jeff McKenna and Council member John Chase have formed a committee to review WithersRavenel’s figures, hear the concerns raised by Save Ivy River and provide the full council with an updated assessment of the need for expansion.
There are many current and future stakeholders to consider: the plant’s customers, who will bear the costs of the expansion if it goes ahead; Buncombe County residents, who depend on the plant for clean water; prospective Madison County residents, who may need water in the future; people who enjoy the Ivy River recreationally; and plants and animals that call the Ivy home.
“We’ve got to be really good stewards of the resources,” says McKenna. “[Water] is a finite resource.”
Weaverville Water Superintendent Trent Duncan estimates that the plant’s customers currently use between 630,000 and 650,000 GPD, or 47%-48% of available capacity. However, when both undeveloped land that has been approved for water hookups and the 200,000 GPD allocated to Mars Hill for emergency use are included in the calculations, the plant’s official capacity jumps to around 70%. State guidelines require public water systems to begin planning for expansion when they reach 80% of capacity and begin building at 90%.
When Town Council members first heard these numbers around 2016, Nagle recalls, they panicked slightly. Six years on, however, he says a better understanding of the data on which that requirement is based has led him to a different conclusion. “I don’t think there’s this panic emergency anymore,” he says.
That change in perspective is largely due to concerns about the appropriateness of state guidelines. The state’s daily flow requirements for buildings, for instance, were set in 1994, when most toilets and shower fixtures did not adhere to current federally mandated low-flow standards. North Carolina requires 400 GPD per residential household, even though its residents used an estimated 70 GPD per person, or about 180 GPD per household, as of 2015 according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Anything from that distance back to today’s current time needs to be reevaluated,” suggests state Rep. Mark Pless. The Republican’s district includes Madison County, where the town of Marshall may need the Ivy River as a future water source given potential contamination problems with its well system. He plans to speak with the state Department of Environmental Quality about reviewing its guidelines soon.
Nagle also questions the need to include some of the water allocations currently factored in by state regulations. Mars Hill, for instance, has never dipped into the emergency reserves Weaverville is required to keep available. “Why are we counting that?” he asks. “That’s ridiculous.”
Nevertheless, Duncan points out, he must use current guidelines when planning for the plant. And expansion projects don’t happen overnight.
“From the time you start looking at it, getting funding and doing the permitting, to breaking ground and then running a drop of water through your new system, it’s about a five-year process,” he says. That’s if everything goes smoothly.
How low can you go?
Meanwhile, Heinl objects to a different number: the claim, made by WithersRavenel in October, that the river’s mean gauge height would decrease by less than an inch by 2075 if the plant expanded to 3 million GPD.
To get that figure, WithersRavenel used data from a USGS measurement site located 8.7 miles downstream from the plant and its pump house. But because multiple streams flow into the Ivy between the pump house and the USGS site, Heinl argues, this data likely overstates the robustness of the river at the point where the pump house draws water. He conducted his own depth and flow measurements of these streams and estimates the actual flow at the pump house is about 85% of the USGS estimate.
“If an expert went out there and did a stream gauge, they might find it a little less or a little more,” Heinl acknowledges. That’s why he hopes that the town will conduct flow tests right at the pump house; Pless says he’s also pushing for another study to give Weaverville the most accurate data. “The town should be interested in an updated flow study that models future conditions because it could also become a supply issue for them,” says Mariah Hughes of the nonprofit Ivy River Partners, which focuses on improving water quality. She notes that the state of the Ivy has changed significantly since the DEQ first issued its permit, which estimated that 4 million GPD could be withdrawn without environmental harm, in the 1990s.
Unique species like the Eastern hellbender salamander live in the Ivy, and the suitability of their environments depends on the river’s flow. However, it’s unclear how much the Ivy has changed since the original permit was issued, especially around the plant.
To that end, Ivy River Partners has commissioned an aquatic biologist to conduct studies of insect populations, which are particularly sensitive to environmental changes, to establish a baseline of the river’s health. “This will give us a tool to monitor future impacts to the Ivy, including from droughts, changes in land use and increased water usage,” Hughes says.
For the future
While Heinl, Duncan, Pless and others may hold different views about the plant’s need to expand, they all share a concern for future residents of Weaverville, north Buncombe and Madison counties who will depend on the Ivy for clean water, scenic beauty and recreation.
“It’s about 50, 60, 70 years from now,” Heinl says. “Right now, we have alternatives” to drawing more water from the Ivy, he says, such as retrofitting outdated fixtures and purchasing water from Asheville. “In 50 years, we may not.”
For Duncan, expansion is about ensuring future residents don’t have to worry about access to clean water. “You wouldn’t want to put your family on a plane that’s half full of fuel, knowing that it can’t make it to this destination,” he says. He also stresses that expansion to 3 million GPD doesn’t mean withdrawing that amount anytime soon.
“I want to see the whole picture and try to go in a pace with everybody’s interests … taken into consideration,” says Pless. “We have to share this world, so I guess the best way to do it is to make sure that we play well with each other.”
As the new year continues, Weaverville Council members will consider all of the numbers carefully and take as much as time as necessary to make a well-informed decision. “We’ve agreed to … give [the] Save the Ivy River folks equal time to WithersRavenel,” Nagle says.
“I think it’s always good to hear both sides, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” he adds.
Editor’s note: The article was updated on Jan. 12, 2022.