Here’s a look at a few significant water outages and incidents in Asheville history, culled from news articles from the Asheville Citizen Times provided by Pack Memorial Library and newspapers.com:
Sept. 29, 1922 – The Asheville Citizen newspaper carried a report with the headline, “Engineers see storage as solution to watr [sic] shortage.” The report detailed how drought-driven low water levels were creating havoc for residents and manufacturers alike.
The city created its first water impoundment, the Bee Tree Reservoir, in 1927, and it served as Asheville’s primary water source until North Fork Reservoir near Black Mountain opened in 1955. While North Fork is the workhorse of the system, Asheville still draws water from Bee Tree, as well as the Mills River water plant in northern Henderson County, built in 1998.
Oct. 29, 1991 – “Thousands feel effects of outages. Waterline breaks, squirrel causes power failure.”
A major waterline ruptured, leaving hundreds of businesses, including the city’s two largest hospitals, without water. A 12-inch transmission line between Thompson Street and Sweeten Creek Road in the Biltmore area blew out.
It was fixed in a matter of hours and water service was restored.
Assistant director of the Water Department, Charles Rector, said they didn’t know how many customers were affected by the outage, although it spread across parts of downtown, north, west and south Asheville.
(In the most recent outage, city officials also were unable to give accurate numbers for those without water).
June 28, 1995 – Headlined, “City to replace leaking water lines,” the article notes the repairs should help “stem the massive leakage from the water system,” officials said. The now-defunct Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority voted that month to approve three contracts totaling $2.4 million to replace 15 miles of major transmission lines.
“On average about a fourth of the water produced at the North Fork and Bee Tree treatment plants leaks into the ground,” the article stated.
The article also noted the work was to be completed from the remainder of a $26 million bond referendum approved in 1991.
Richard Maas, a member of the authority, said at the time, “This represents the first time in the last 30 years we will be reducing leakage faster than new leakage is occurring.”
Oct. 5, 1997 – The article states workers repair more than a thousand breaks in the Asheville area every year, and the system, which serves 100,000 people, leaks about five million gallons of water daily.
About 27 percent of the water produced at the North Fork and Bee Tree water treatment plans is unaccounted for, which is the difference between the amount produced and the amount billed to customers. About three-fourths of that is leakage.
“It ends up being about five million gallons a day leaking out of the system,” Maas, then a member of the authority and an environmental studies instructor at UNCA, said. “That’s a very large amount.”
Maas noted that many of the system’s older lines had a useful lifespan of about 50 years, and many were older than that. While the city should have been replacing them regularly, the cash-strapped municipality did not.
In the article, Maas said, “Asheville did not replace virtually any lines through the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s. So now we’re faced with hundreds of miles of over-aged, degrading water lines.”
The article offered a nice snippet of Asheville history via an interview with Dick Wood, former water authority chairman and Asheville’s mayor in the early 1970s. He said the city was slow to replace lines because it lacked the money, and because capacity at the North Fork reservoir was so much greater than the daily usage, “that it didn’t seem cost-effective to to worry about water leakage.”
The article noted that Asheville came out of the Great Depression with the highest bonded indebtedness of any city in the country with a population under 100,000, according to Wood. Residents paid high property taxes that went toward the debt, and, Wood told the paper, in the ‘60s and ‘70s the city would take “operating surpluses from the water system and transfer that money into the general fund to help pay the debt service on those bonds.”
The water system’s “first serious stab at line replacement began with the 1991 passage of a $26 million bond issue to fund water system improvements, including $3 million for line replacement,” the article states.
The water authority spent an average of $1 million a year on line replacement, concentrating on the oldest lines in the central part of the city.
In 1996, according to the article, city workers repaired 721 breaks to main lines and 378 breaks to service lines that run between residences and the street. The $5 million spent over that five year period replaced 21 miles of line, while the entire system comprised 1,100 miles.
Today it includes 1,702 miles of water lines, and water is stored in 35 reservoirs, according to the Water Department’s annual report. Each day, the system delivers water to over 156,000 people in Asheville, Buncombe County, and Henderson County.
The water director in 1997 estimated it would cost at least $300 million to replace the entire system.
“We can’t just go in and spend $10 million a year on pipeline replacement because of the impact on rates,” the director said then. “You have to balance the need to replace lines with other needs.”
In a Jan. 11 interview, current Water Department Director David Melton said he doesn’t believe the water system, which now spends about $10 million a year on improvements and line replacements, is underfunded.
“We can always spend more,” Melton said. “But that’s a balancing act between rates and funding because we’re enterprise funds. So we’re totally dependent on rates and fees to fund what we do.”
In 1997, the newer lines being put in were made of ductile iron instead of cast iron and had a design life of 100 years.
Maas said the water authority should be spending $2 million to $3 million a year.
“If we continued to invest about $2 million a year, after about 20 years line breaks would become a relatively rare occurrence,” Maas said then.
March 20, 2004 — An article titled, “Fairness of Asheville water rate questioned. But everyone agrees aging system needs to be fixed.”
The report interviewed a Swannanoa man, Tom Thrailkill, who kept old milk containers filled with water just in case. Two years earlier, a 100-year-old water line broke and left him and neighbors without water for more than a week. Fixing the problem would cost $1.3 million.
“The thing we wonder is how was this allowed to happen over the years?” Thrailkill said. “Putting Band-Aids on Band-Aids doesn’t do the job.”
Sept. 9, 2004 – “Feeling Frances’ fury: Many Asheville, Buncombe residents have no water.”
Floodwaters from the remnants of Hurricane France knocked out five main pipes taking water from the city’s primary water source, North Fork Reservoir, to most of the city, the Citizen Times reported. Water pressure declined across much of the city, and officials said many city residents were without water.
Then-Mayor Charles Worley said the outage affected about 80 percent of the system, which at the time served about 140,000 people.
David Hanks, interim water resources director at the time, said workers hoped to open a valve the previous evening that would allow water from the Mills River treatment plant in northern Henderson County to enter the rest of the city water system. The valve was under floodwaters in Biltmore Village, though.
Mills River water would help but can’t solve the problem, Worley said, as the plant produced 7 million gallons of water a day and water customers typically use about 22 million gallons a day.
Floodwaters washed out the two largest mains leading from North Fork. Two other lines dating from 1903 were underwater and broke from flooding.
As far as getting water back online, Hanks said, “Our best guess is 24 hours at a minimum.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com.