Sense and nonsense: the debate over the future of our water system

In Burnsville, I grew up with the attitude that both Washington and Raleigh would do best, just to mind their own business and let Yancey County mind theirs. A disposition for favoring local government to solve problems, combined with my liberal and capitalist views, has relegated me to isolation in our current political climate. It doesn’t really bother me because, as an independent, I have been an equal opportunity disparager of both political parties for years. At the risk of offending numerous people in and out of government who I deeply respect, some unvarnished candor and truth is in order.

I’ve looked at the nonsense surrounding our debate over the water issue for years. It has mostly been humorous. For example, currently, we have a Republican representative arguing that ratepayers own the system because they buy the water. That sounds pretty socialist to me. That’s like saying my restaurant customers own my business because they buy my food or my tenants own my buildings because they pay rent. I’ve heard others argue because city governments are administrative arms of the state that Raleigh really owns Asheville’s water system. Our General Assembly can take our water system and give it to whomever they please. If Asheville’s water system can be given to someone else, then every other water system in North Carolina can be taken away too? Hmmm, not good if you own municipal bonds in North Carolina.

On other sides, the irony is equally apparent. My city has long argued free-market principles to justify defying the Sullivan Acts. Asheville owns the water. We need to be free to grow. We should have differential water rates just like everyone else. We deserve the same opportunity to conscript new citizens. Sounds like government imposing its will to me.

Equally silly have been avowed capitalists in Buncombe County screaming at the fact that our water system might be turning an “unfair profit.” Over the years, Asheville citizens have been more than paid back for their initiative and investment. We have the right to take Asheville’s water system, against their will, because it will be better for the economy of Western North Carolina and people everywhere. I think Hugo Chavez used similar arguments to nationalize Mobil Oil in Argentina.

Let’s talk some sense: State annexation laws have changed, making the outcome of the debate far more important. The future and financial health of our community is at stake. It is very important for everyone to understand what’s at issue so we can realize a better future.

The most significant force for economic advancement in Buncombe County has been a visionary Asheville business community and an entrepreneurial city government, working together. Our regional airport, our reputation as an international destination and our thriving downtown are the result of city decisions. Sierra Nevada is locating in Mills River because Asheville breweries turned us into the nation’s beer capital. Years ago, Asheville willingly gave up its waste-management assets to help form the the Metropolitan Sewerage District, proving a desire do what is best for the area.

A magnet for economic vitality and prosperity, Asheville has truly been the economic center for the area. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the acquisition and development of our water system. We bought the land, built the dams and provided the water everyone is fussing about. We deserve to be paid for and to continue to profit from our investment. We deserve to keep those assets if we want to.

Equally true is the fact that the power to control the future of the water supply in our area is critical to the economic future of not only our partners in Buncombe and Henderson counties, but the region as a whole. With great power comes great responsibility. The city of Asheville should hold a key role in how that power is applied but we have to be good neighbors. We have to respect the diversity of viewpoints and the legitimate concerns of our neighbors.

Being brutally honest means facing my own shortcomings in this debate. For much of the time, I have acted as a good patriot for my city. Others have been equally patriotic, depending on where they were coming from. The dispute over the control and management of our water system is 79 years old and counting. Like most protracted controversies, it is not about one side being right and the other wrong. It’s really about both sides being right and asserting how the other side is being unfair.  Maybe we should all take off our patriot hats and genuinely try to work this out. We as a community need come up with a plan — a plan that we all want to participate in. A plan that respects each other’s legitimate concerns and allows us all to prosper into the future. That would accomplish something everyone is thirsting for, good governance.

For almost 80 years, our North Carolina General Assembly has made an effort to impose fairness with Sullivan Acts I, II & III. Yet no peace has come from this effort. Perhaps it is time for our current General Assembly to get out of the business of imposing peace in this local tiff. If Raleigh could be open to repealing all of the Sullivan Acts, it would be a good first step in sorting this all out.


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3 thoughts on “Sense and nonsense: the debate over the future of our water system

  1. Michael DeBruhl Blankenship

    Thank you so much for taking your time to write.

    Our Famiky cemetery is atop a mountain meadow aside a cow path at Indian Creek. My remains are to be placed among my kin.

    Nobody seems to care about water. Yet. I want to emphasize that to understand the history of The Water Authority it is “aprori” vital to understand a. the importance of the railroads in the transition from agrarian to industrial age economies in WNC. Also understand the Weeks Act of 1911, the epic displacement of highlander communities, families, millttowns, mining towns, lumber villages into the lowlands and the isothermal belts. The displacement of the population of the mountain environs was if a BIBLICAL scale.
    With that said conceptualize that by 1905 our mountains were deforested, our rivers and streams ALL toxic, our farmlands washed away. Land was worthless and inhabitable. The drinking water became lethal the land, tress gone. Thus The Sullivan Act was conceived in crisis over 70 years ago to abate the realities of the destruction, by rampant unregulated speculation, criminal political and criminal free markets and corrupt bankers.
    In short these two correspondences mirror this point. The past from 1929 need not be prelude to the future: The Sullivan ACT, like the Blue Law, is in need of PUBLIC scrutiny. We live in the consequences of the economics, politics, and environmental wholesale destruction of 1929.

    This is my response and my gift to everyone in Yancey County, USA, where my heart is, and where I plan to rest for eternity in the peace filled quiet of Indian Creek

    Michael DeBruhl Blankenship USMC Retired, RN

  2. “If Raleigh could be open to repealing all of the Sullivan Acts, it would be a good first step in sorting this all out.”

    I guess that would require that the local delegation get on board. Right?

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