Thousands of Asheville residents lost water for days over the Christmas holidays but for many customers of the water system to the north, every day can be a crapshoot.
Pipes are collapsing and clogged with sediment. Hydrants don’t work, forcing firefighters to haul their own water. Pressure is so low that customers can’t get enough water, and sometimes it’s just dirty.
Serving nearly 10,000 people in a 24-square-mile area including portions of Asheville and Weaverville, the town of Woodfin, and areas of unincorporated Buncombe County, the Woodfin Sanitary Water and Sewer District (WSWSD) suffers from an aging infrastructure — some pipes date back to the 1930s —combined with a rapidly expanding population. Between 2000 and 2020, Woodfin’s population more than doubled, to just under 8,000, according to the latest Census data.
Pressure in the system is so low, said West Buncombe Fire Chief Dennis Fagnant Jr.,“I cannot wash my car or run a sprinkler.”
The aging system regularly pumps dirty water to customers, especially in the Woodland Hills subdivision, residents there said. Cari Zalkin said she had dirty, brown water in her home from broken pipes about five or six times a year and ultimately decided to spend $1,800 to install a whole house water filter.
“We got tired of flushing our inside pipes each time it happened, and cleaning the tank interiors of all of our commodes,” Zalkin said.
Woodland Hills residents Victor Knight and his daughter, Allison, said they have low pressure a few times a week and sometimes murky water. Victor Knight said that a nearby pipe has broken multiple times and needs replacing.
“We lost water for two days over the New Year’s holidays” due to freezing pipes, Victor Knight said. Another time, “a water main broke at the end of the driveway and we couldn’t use it for four days.”
The WSWSD does not keep records of how many customer complaints it receives, Joseph Martin, the district’s former executive director, said at a March 20 board meeting.
He retired last year after two decades with the system but remains a paid consultant, helping with the leadership transition. His successor, Brian Goldstein, a former New York state civil service executive, has no experience in running water systems, according to Gordon Maybury, the newest member of the district’s board of trustees.
Pipes Approaching End of Lifespan
Some of the district’s water lines date to around 1930 and are made of cast iron, Martin said via email in response to questions from Asheville Watchdog.
Cast iron pipes have a life expectancy of 50 to100 years, though some can last more than a century, Martin said. They lack flexibility and are more prone to breaks than newer water lines that are made of a mix of cast iron and other alloys called ductile iron. Older pipes can also develop growths like stalagmites inside that reduce water flow, he said.
The Woodfin system, which has a high rating by the state for water quality, gets most of its water from the headwaters of Reems Creek and buys 25 percent from Asheville. It has its own water treatment plant.
Goldstein, who was appointed by the board last year to be the new executive director, said in an email to Asheville Watchdog the district is proud of its operations and “was a groundbreaker in protecting its water source by working with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and placing its entire 2,000 acre watershed under conservation easement in 2004.”
Yet, the local fire departments that rely on the WSWSD’s system say hydrants often are inoperational or geographically far apart. “They could care less about fire services,” Woodfin Assistant Fire Chief Mark Dicus told Asheville Watchdog.
Goldstein said the district’s top priority is drinking water. “Firefighting is secondary,” he said. “Some customers live on hillsides or mountaintops such that direct hydrant water may not be available.”
Firefighters Bring Their Own Water to Fires
Woodfin Fire Chief Jeff Angel said some of the pipes are full of sediment and collapsing.
Unable to count on the district’s water system to fight fires, the fire departments in Woodfin and West Buncombe bring tanker and pumper trucks to fires.
“I don’t put much stock in the (Woodfin) water system at all,” said Fagnant. “We bring our water with us.”
Before at house fires, Fagnant recalled, when firefighters hooked up to a hydrant, “within minutes Woodfin Water showed up and they wanted to shut my hydrant off, which obviously wasn’t going to happen. That was because we were using all the water and residents were calling, complaining about not having water.”
At one house fire in Woodlands Hills, firefighters drained the system, said Fagnant, who was with the Weaverville Fire Department for 13 years before joining West Buncombe. “We were at the very bottom of their system and the water was black, I mean, the blackest water I ever saw. ”
Angel said that about 2 percent of the system’s hydrants do not work in his service area, and Fagnant said 5 percent are inoperational in his area. One non-functioning hydrant in West Buncombe seriously leans but hasn’t been fixed despite being reported to the WSWSD for years, said Fagnant.
Goldstein told Asheville Watchdog in an email that fire departments are responsible for testing hydrants and are provided a paper form for reporting those that need repairs. He said he had no reports of hydrants that were not working.
Martin, the former executive director, said he “knew everybody” and used email to communicate about problems. Martin said that no fire chief or marshal had “ever indicated to me that they were unable to rely on district water.”
Fagnant said the use of tanker trucks to supply water for firefighting is not ideal and carries its own risks and difficulties. “What’s primarily a concern for me is the hazard associated with tankers,” he said.
“When I empty a tanker out, I‘ve got to send them to refill,” he said. “So there’s that elevated risk that I’m running a big truck with lights and sirens to another place to fill up with water and then lights and sirens back to the scene. That type of operation is high-risk.”
“Then you add in our topography, and then our narrow roads so tankers won’t be able to even do posted speed limits because it is not safe for them. Tankers are inherently very, very heavy,” Fagnant said.
North Carolina, he said, “leads the nation when it comes to tanker roll-overs and crashes, so it’s very high on my radar.”
Woodfin Fields Complaints
Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun said WSWSD “has had problems sporadically for years.” He said many people complain to the town, but Woodfin is not responsible for the water district, which became a municipal corporation in 1931 and is its own legal entity with a three-member, elected board.
VeHaun said Martin, the former executive director, “wasn’t as responsive as he should have been.”
Martin said, “After 20 years, we increased the district’s assets by several hundred percent, paid off all outstanding debt, left an enormous reserve account and maintained nearly the lowest water rates in all of [western North Carolina]. I’m proud of the work staff and our boards did over the years and I’d put our model of what local government can be against anyone.”
VeHaun, who is also chair of the Metropolitan Sewer District board, said all hydrants should be working. “They need to change the water lines to have adequate water in hydrants,” he said.
Angel said aging infrastructure is WSWSD’s main problem, and “it makes it difficult for them to keep up.”
He said the strain on the system will only worsen as Woodfin continues to grow. “The more development that is allowed, the more stretched the water,” he said.
Board Members Respond, Sort Of
The district spent more than $10 million on capital improvements, including water line upgrades, between 2004 and 2021, according to its 2021 Annual Water Quality report. But “infrastructure continues to age, and a lack of viable planning for replacing that infrastructure could compromise the District’s financial position,” then-director Martin warned in the district’s 2023 budget document.
He recommended creating a “Capital Improvement Plan,” noting that necessary improvements and upgrades “are financially, or capitally, intensive in nature.” And, he said, “As the first District water lines approach one hundred years of age, and the system continues to realize growing pains, attention is required to infrastructure.”
Besides water line replacement, other potentially costly capital needs include “water treatment plant repairs/upgrades/replacements, administrative office building repair/replacement, vehicle replacements, technology, etc,” Martin told Asheville Watchdog.
The district’s financial position is strong. It takes in $5.4 million from the fees it charges users and has expenditures of just $2.2 million, according to its 2023 budget. But the budgeted amount for capital expenditures this year, $568,016, actually went down, from $620,215 in 2022.
The district could tap into reserves for its infrastructure needs but would also need additional money from state or federal grants, loans, or some combination of those, according to a budget document.
Martin told Asheville Watchdog in an email that “failing to anticipate future upgrades and replacements within the district could cause financial stress.”
The district’s 2024 fiscal year starts July 1, and any discussion of an increased infrastructure budget won’t begin until later this month or May, board of trustees chair Sarah Gassaway said at the March 20 meeting.
“We’ve got a good (financial) cushion and we are out of debt,” Gassaway said, but “the way things are now, it’s so expensive to fix anything.”
With the aging system, “you just never know what might happen,” she said.
Gassaway, a life-long Woodfin resident who has been on the board since 2009, told Asheville Watchdog that she was aware of persistent complaints in areas with the oldest pipes. But she said that the district has made headway, replacing and enlarging pipes “in the last few years along Riverside Drive, in the city of Asheville, and along Woodfin Drive, and up into the Weaverville district.”
Ivo Ballentine, a board member since 2015, declined to answer questions from Asheville Watchdog.
The third and newest board member, Maybury, a former private sector executive and a resident of Woodfin, was appointed by the Buncombe County Commission to fill a vacancy created by the departure of long-time member Donald Haynes. Maybury, who was sworn in Feb. 17, said he is still getting up to speed on the district’s business and declined to comment on the district’s problems.
All three board seats are up for election in November. Despite the long-running complaints and importance of the water system, elections for district board seats have traditionally drawn little interest from voters.
Candidates have run unopposed, and board members have won their seats with 300 or fewer votes in elections since 2015. Woodfin alone has over 5,000 registered voters.
Some residents served by the district are hoping that a “new guard” will be elected, similar to the 2021 election when a record turnout propelled three newcomers to the Woodfin Town Council.
Larry Hopkins, who moved to Woodfin in 2018 after retiring from a career in the chemical industry, said he’d like to see more partnership and transparency between the town council and the water district, which seems to be “run on the good ole boy concept.” He worries that the district is susceptible to the kinds of problems that led to thousands of residents in Asheville, primarily in the southern part of the city, losing their water over the Christmas 2022 holidays for more than a week.
“I think that boards need to be transparent,” Hopkins said. “And I don’t want us to have problems like South Asheville had.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .