While the great holiday season water outage of 2022-’23 may seem like an extraordinary event in Asheville’s history, the city has a deep and troubling history of water woes.
In fact, the origin dates to the Great Depression and the mountain town’s insistence on paying off a massive debt load while ignoring infrastructure needs. In the middle part of the 20th century, the city even funneled some water revenues toward the Depression-era debt, which was finally paid off in 1976.
The most recent outage, which left tens of thousands of customers without water and spanned 11 days over Christmas and New Year’s, was precipitated by a severe three-day cold event. Throughout the system, 27 city-owned water lines broke, and when the city turned to its Mills River water plant to produce water, workers found it frozen.
Engineering experts say infrastructure issues, a lack of preparation, and a poor response to the crisis played key roles in the debacle. It is worth noting that the Water Department’s “tabletop” emergency exercise in early December involved a tropical storm deluge scenario, not a cold weather event.
Asheville’s history includes a litany of water failures and outages, ranging from a week-long outage caused by a hurricane in 2004 to more than 720 “boil water advisories” in various parts of the city between 2017 and 2021, usually caused by water line breaks or other troubles. In 1995, city leaders and water officials lamented that one-fourth of the water produced at the city’s two main reservoirs, North Fork and Bee Tree, leaked into the ground because of old and faulty pipes.
Extra: A History in Headlines: Asheville Water Problems Through the Decades
As of 2022, that water loss figure stood at almost 27 percent, according to a Water Resources Department brief from April of that year.
“Water loss is on the rise, after hitting a historic low in 2017,” the brief stated. “Despite a proactive leakage management program, new leakage continues to rise faster than the mitigative efforts can contain it.”
The average age of the 27 city water lines that broke is 45 years, and the “majority of the large public-side breaks experienced were in pipes made of cast iron,” a city spokesperson said. Cast iron becomes brittle as it ages.
One of the more colorful water failures occurred in April 2019 when city water users endured days of brown water caused by excessive manganese settling out. While the water department assured residents the manganese-laden water was harmless, as some manganese occurs naturally in water and various foods, many citizens were unwilling to drink a glass of murky brownish water, or even wash clothes with it.
‘Water system is in trouble and has been for decades’
For John Shaw, a professional engineer who has worked in the water industry for 35 years and lived in Asheville for five years, the latest outage struck him as another incident in a string of mismanagement.
“The city of Asheville’s water system is in trouble and has been for decades,” Shaw told Asheville Watchdog this month. “No one has stepped up and tried to address that. So, it’s really no surprise to anyone who understands what’s going on that these conditions have existed and will continue to exist until they get a master plan in place to remedy this, which includes the funding required to do it, which is going to be very significant.”
John Shaw, a professional engineer, said Asheville’s water system has been in trouble for decades.
Shaw lived in Asheville from 2013 to 2018 and still owns a house in north Asheville, although he calls Reno, Nevada, home now. A water industry consultant and expert witness, Shaw owns John Shaw Consulting LLC.
Asked who could have predicted a lingering, severe cold-weather event in Asheville, Shaw said, “Anybody?”
The low temperature did hit 2 degrees on Dec. 23 and zero on Dec. 24, as well as 12 degrees the next two nights, but the cold snap was predicted days in advance. While Water Resources Department Director David Melton and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer have described the cold snap as unprecedented, that’s not the case, as Asheville has had at least seven cold waves of equal or colder temperatures in the last 50 years, according to John Bates, a meteorologist who retired in 2018 from the federal government’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville.
Of that December tabletop planning exercise, Melton said the session “wasn’t directed at this incident, right, because we didn’t know this was going to happen in December.”
“We had a totally different scenario, and it had a lot to do with setting up our master command, how that looks, who was going to be where, who was going to do what,” Melton said.
Later Melton added, “We were more geared towards tropical storms, hurricanes, things that we’ve lived through.”
Melton on climate change: ‘I’m a believer now’
Melton did say the department has taken immediate measures to assure a similar breakdown doesn’t occur again in January or February, including adding more insulation and heat tape to equipment at the Mills River water treatment plant, where key equipment froze.
A business degree graduate of Anderson University in South Carolina, a private Christian school, Melton said the cold snap did make him change his beliefs on climate change.
“You know, I was one of the ones — ‘Yeah, things are different, but I’m not sure about climate change,’” Melton said in a Jan. 11 interview. “I’m a believer now. Over the last several years, it’s a real thing.”
His boss, Assistant City Manager Ben Woody, also in the interview, jumped in to stress that water department staff are “technical staff that are trained.”
“I mean, they’re scientists, and they very much know what they’re doing, and so I think they’re always preparing to try and make sure water doesn’t go off line,” Woody said.
City continues to be ‘coy’ about events, engineer says
Mike Rains, an Asheville resident and retired engineer who worked for Duke Energy at a nuclear power plant, said via email that even though the city has released more detailed information on timelines and events surrounding the outage, “they continue to be very coy around the significant number of major leaks that really brought the system down.”
He questions if the cold was the sole culprit.
“I highly suspect that many of these [line breaks] were not directly due to freezing but resulted from operational hydraulic events that may or may not have been avoidable,” Rains said. “By the way, one obvious ‘symptom’ of hydraulic events in the system is the brown water that shows up in household taps. This brown water is basically internal pipe corrosion that has been ‘shaken loose.’ In the early stages of the event, households in our area of north Asheville were reporting this even though they were not out of water.”
Shaw also remains skeptical about the cold causing so much of the problems. Preparation is the key, he said, not how far the thermometer falls.
“I think it really isn’t a matter of degrees,” Shaw said. “It’s, ‘At what point do we start to see freezing? Where is that freezing going to occur first? How are we going to protect against that?’ And how are we going to respond to it should it occur? You should plan for those things. It’s not just a numbers issue. It’s binary: freezing or not freezing.”
Melton also said in the interview that the Mills River plant had not been tested by this kind of severe cold, but that’s incorrect. The plant was built in 1998.
Since Jan. 1, 1999, Asheville Regional Airport, the official weather station for Asheville, has recorded 33 days with a low temperature of below 10 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. That includes a low of minus 1 degree in January 2014.
The Mills River water plant, actually located in northern Henderson County, is about 5 miles from the airport.
Should a professional engineer be in charge?
Rains and Shaw both contend a system the size of Asheville’s should be run by a professional engineer, not someone from the business side like Melton, who started with Asheville in 2016.
“A facility of any size will have a professional engineer running the show,” Shaw said. “But you get down to the smaller utilities, which Asheville is, and it’s not uncommon to have the director be a guy who worked his way up — unfortunately.”
Shaw noted that he has not consulted professionally with Asheville.
Water systems are based almost entirely on engineering, and that’s why it’s so important to have engineers heading them up, Shaw said.
“Unless the guy at top understands the requirements of operation, maintenance, management, design, regulatory compliance — all of those things are engineering-related,” Shaw said. “You really can’t tease them out.”
Rains has also said Asheville’s system should be run by an engineer, offering similar reasoning to Shaw’s.
Woody has stood by Melton, who was hired in February 2016 as assistant director of the Water Resources Department and promoted to director in November 2018. Melton earns $135,688 annually, plus a $3,600 annual car allowance.
His personnel file shows no suspensions or disciplinary actions. Melton has defended his performance and that of his staff, which includes multiple engineers.
“We actually have three [professional engineers] on staff within the water department in our engineering department,” Melton said, noting that he relies on them for their technical expertise.
Melton also defended his decision to cut off service to the southern service area, which left thousands in south Asheville and southern Buncombe County without water for days. While he took input from staff on the decision to essentially sacrifice the southern portion of the water system to keep the rest of it running without boil-water advisories, Melton said that decision was his to make.
And, he said, he would do it again.
“We were hopeful that the night of the 26th, that we would get Mills River back on, or at least early in the a.m. hours on the 27th,” Melton said. “Even with the hope we had, yeah, that’s a hard decision. It was a hard decision that the team came to and, of course, I approved that decision. So at the end of the day, I made that decision.”
The city wanted to avoid a boil water advisory for Mission Hospital and other medical facilities, as well as other heavy water users clustered in and around downtown, he said.
Asked if the decision was a mistake, Melton said, “I don’t think so.”
“I would have, given the same situation we had, I would have made the same decision,” he told The Watchdog.
As far as being caught off guard, Melton said the Water Department actually had “a little bit more than the normal on-call crews” for the Christmas holiday. Usual staffing is two duty officers and an on-call crew, but over Christmas the department had two duty officers working, an on-call crew, a second on-call crew, and seven staffers on standby, the city said.
Melton said he was out of town on Christmas Eve, visiting relatives in the upstate of South Carolina, but he returned to Asheville the afternoon of Christmas day.
Is it an infrastructure issue?
Early on in the crisis, which started Dec. 24, Melton said the outage was “100 percent weather related,” and not indicative of an infrastructure problem, although he acknowledged 11 city-owned water lines had broken. When the city released a timeline of events Jan. 10, it stated that 27 city-owned lines had broken between Dec. 25 and 31.
Asheville Water Resources Department Director David Melton, seen here at a Jan. 3 press conference, said he ultimately made the decision to cut off water to the southern portion of the service area, mainly to protect Mission Hospital and other large water consumer from “boil water advisories.”
Shaw said in his opinion it’s a “very fair” assessment that the city has an infrastructure problem.
“I think that goes to their understanding of the situation and their ability to track in real time their facility issues,” Shaw said. “If you don’t know the difference between 11 and 27 [water lines] with regards to significant infrastructure issues, you have a problem.”
Melton said city water lines are buried at a depth of four and a half feet, the industry standard and well below the freeze line of 18 inches in this area. Shaw said that is plenty deep.
In a Jan. 11 interview, Melton said ductile iron is preferred over cast iron, as cast iron becomes brittle with age and more prone to ruptures.
The Water Resources Department’s capital improvement plan shows that over the past five fiscal years, dating to 2019, the department has spent at least $10.4 million annually, with most of that going toward “large waterline projects” and “small waterline replacement projects.”
Over the last 20 years, water crews have replaced 88 miles of pipe in the system, which comprises just over 1,700 miles of water lines.
Melton said age is one factor they consider when replacing pipes, but they also consider how much the pipe in question is used.
“We look at how often it breaks, how many customers it puts out of service when it breaks,” Melton said.
Former mayor: ‘You do what you can in city government’
Former Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, who also served as chair of the now-defunct Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority, said cities rarely set aside enough funding to handle all of their water needs.
“You do what you can in city government. You’ve only got so much money to repair and replace this many pipes,” said Worley, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2005 and as a city council member before that. “That’s just the reality of government. You never get enough money to get everything up to 100 percent capability.”
Worley, who was mayor when a tropical storm blew out key water lines from the North Fork Reservoir in 2004 and left much of the city without water for over a week, said two things struck him about this latest outage: poor communications and the freeze-up of the Mills River plant.
“One thing about water and underground pipes and freezing — if the water keeps running, it’s not going to freeze,” said Worley, an attorney by training. “But if you let it freeze up and you can’t get water out, then pipes are much more apt to freeze.”
Average daily demand on the city’s water system is about 22.5 million gallons, Melton has said previously. It hit 28 million gallons a day over Christmas, although some of that may have been from leaking water. But the system has a capacity of nearly 50 million gallons a day, and Melton has said development and building has not created outsized demand on the system.
The Mills River plant, opened in the late 1990s as a supplemental water source for Asheville, had been offline for much of 2022. The North Fork Reservoir in Black Mountain and Bee Tree Reservoir in Swannanoa can easily meet the city’s needs.
With a capacity of 31 million gallons per day, North Fork is the workhorse, according to the city’s annual water quality report. Bee Tree’s capacity is 5 million gallons a day, and Mills River, 7 million.
After treatment, water travels through 1,702 miles of water lines and is stored in 35 reservoirs, according to the annual report. Each day, the system delivers water to over 156,000 people in Asheville, Buncombe County, and Henderson County.
The Mills River plant freeze up
During the Christmas crisis, when plant operators tried to bring Mills River online to help meet high demand and keep water flowing, key components were frozen. Melton initially described them as intakes but clarified that Jan. 11.
“It wasn’t the intakes, but it was what we call the influent valves — the valves that control flow from the settling basins into the filters.” They were frozen, rendering the plant incapable of delivering water. Some lines that feed necessary treatment chemicals into the plant also froze.
Shaw suspects the Water Department got lackadaisical about the Mills River plant because it’s not crucial to its water delivery plan.
“I’m sure it didn’t cross their minds that they would need to bring [Mills River] online, because I’m sure it just sits back there as a high-demand facility,” Shaw said. “Well, high-demand periods are typically in summer, right? They’re not in the winter, so it never even crossed their mind if they had a water main break that they may need to bring this facility online.”
Water leaks all the time, but Asheville’s rate is high
All water systems have leaks on a regular basis, but Asheville’s water loss over the years — one-quarter of the water produced — has been unusually high since the 1990s, Shaw said.
It’s actually about the same or a little worse today. The city has worked on improvements for decades now, and water loss in January 2022 stood at about six million gallons a day, down from seven million daily in January 2008, according to city data.
But that’s still nearly 27 percent of the water produced being lost.
In a 2015 press release, the city touted the issuance of $55 million in “green bonds” (from eco-friendly financial investments) to finance multiple watershed and water service protection projects. Steve Shoaf, then the Water Resources Director, said mountainous topography causes water management challenges here, including unusually high water pressure, which can result in high water loss, sometimes around 30 percent.
“While it’s not an unusually high percentage in a mountainous area, the city is working to limit that loss,” the press release stated, noting valve replacements and enhanced water tanks were among the targets.
Melton has also said Asheville’s water system is unusually complicated.
Asked if Asheville’s water system was unusually complex because of its elevation changes and high pressures, Shaw said, “Meh.”
“It may seem more complex to someone who’s not in the industry, but elevation changes are something that is part of pretty much any water distribution facility with any topography that’s not flat,” Shaw said. “We deal with that all the time. It’s just a matter of managing your transmission systems, your pressure regulating systems. All that done as a matter of standard operations in the industry.”
That 30 percent water loss figure is high, Shaw emphasized.
While experts disagree, with some saying 30 percent is common, the Environmental Protection Agency states, “National studies indicate that, on average, 14 percent of the water treated by water systems is lost to leaks. Some water systems have reported water losses exceeding 60 percent. Accounting for water and minimizing water loss are critical functions for any water utility that wants to be sustainable.“
The city’s release noted “some money” from the bonds went to replace failing water lines, “so we’re getting the water from point A to point B with fewer leaks,” Shoaf said.
In the recent crisis, one leak was a major factor: a city waterline along Caribou Road, near Sweeten Creek Road, broke, spewing about 4.5 million gallons of water a day into the ground.
Woody and Melton also said water restoration, once Mills River did get running, was much more complicated than anticipated, in part because of varying pressurization in the system that required slow recharging of lines. But they also said decisions made at the time made sense.
“This is obvious, I think, but I don’t think that on the night of the 26th that we anticipated a prolonged water outage,” Woody said. “So I think you have to create context around some of the decisions that were made.”
‘We’re going to do better’
One complicating factor is the high pressure of water coming from the North Fork Reservoir in Black Mountain. Melton said restoring service to the south with water from North Fork was problematic because the higher pressure could cause serious issues with pipes and pumps in the south, so they had to go slow.
When restoring water to the western part of the service sector, in the Candler area, Water Resources ran into another complicating factor: A city-owned pump to get the water there wasn’t powerful enough.
“Actually, on the 26th we deployed our portable pump that we own,” Melton said. “Around the evening of the 27th, we noticed the western Buncombe County tanks weren’t recovering like we had hoped. So at that point, staff began putting together the specs for the pump we needed. So, it was actually here in two days.”
The pump had to come from Charlotte.
Woody said the Independent Review Committee appointed by City Council to review the water outage, after their analysis, “may come back and say, ‘You should have two big pumps. Right? Or they may say, yeah, I don’t know.”
He stressed that the city’s water workers are “very prideful” and strive to keep the water flowing.
“They want to be successful and they’re going to work probably, I think, twice as hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Woody said. “Now, could something bad happen again in three weeks? Yes, we can never say never. But I want to emphasize that I think we are going to learn from what happened and we’re going to do better.”
Watchdog reporter Sally Kestin contributed to this article.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.