Credit: City of Asheville

The City of Asheville has released its long-awaited Independent Review Committee report on the devastating holiday season water outage, and it highlights the city’s ineptitude in what it called “murky” communications, providing accurate information and even identifying who was actually in charge.

The report also said Mayor Esther Manheimer, according to city employees, exerted “significant,” “major” and “extreme” pressure on staff members regarding estimated timelines for restored water services.

“These people told the report’s authors ‘that if a public message was not immediately developed giving an estimate, the strong insinuation from the Mayor was that the jobs of the people stating objections were on the line,’” the report states. “The authors asked Manheimer about this and she said she did put pressure on staff ‘to change their assessment and put out a public message giving an estimate on the restoration of service.’

“She told the authors ‘that the public demanded a timeframe,’” the report states. 

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, at the podium, talks at a Jan. 3 press conference about the city’s water outage, which lasted more than a week. She’s flanked by Asheville City Council members, from left to right, Sandra
Kilgore, Sheneika Smith, and Antanette Mosley. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

That “pushed” Water Resources Director David Melton to say water would be restored within 24-48 hours, according to the report.

Asheville’s city charter states that members of City Council, which includes the mayor, have to deal with city administrators through the city manager, other than “for the purpose of inquiry.” The charter states, “…neither the council nor any member thereof shall give an order to any city employee in the administrative service of the city, other than the city manager, relating to any matter in the line of his employment.”

A violation is a misdemeanor, “conviction of which shall immediately forfeit the office of the member so convicted,” the charter states.

The Watchdog requested a phone interview with Manheimer, but she emailed a statement noting she appreciated the committee’s “swift work to assess the causes and handling of the city’s holiday water outage.

“The city will work to implement the recommendations of the task force with the primary goal of preventing a water outage of this magnitude from ever happening again,” Manheimer said in the statement. “I also appreciate the constructive criticism; we’ve all learned a lot from this experience and this report and understand the work and training needed to address future emergencies.”

Manheimer later issued a brief addendum, taking issue with the report’s characterization of her behavior during the crisis regarding city staff.

“The conversation about water restoration involved several folks and ultimately a timeline was provided by water staff to those city staff preparing a press release,” Manheimer said via email. “I was certainly eager for the community to be provided a time estimate for water restoration but I did not exert extreme pressure to do so.”

The “collective opinion” of the IRC, the report states, is the outage “should not have been as widespread nor impacted as many customers nor lasted as long as it did.

 The outage spanned 11 days, from Dec. 24 through Jan. 4, left tens of thousands of customers without water and shut down businesses during the holiday season.

The report also makes a slew of recommendations for improvements to avoid another similar outage. And it says the loss of water to thousands of customers without potable water created “a public health hazard.”

“City leaders and elected officials were consistently unable to identify who was in charge,” the report states, noting that two people identified themselves as the incident commander. “One member in City Leadership described the situation as ‘leading by consensus.’”

The report also found an “inconsistent or complete lack of training for elected officials, city management, and operational staff surrounding emergency management/response.”

It further noted that the only person the Emergency Response subcommittee spoke with who “was adamant” that Melton was the incident commander was now-retired Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette.

“A common response received was leading ‘within silos.’”

It cited the loss of operation of the Mills River water plant, one of three the city operates, as a key in the duration of the outage, as crucial chemical lines at the plant froze and the plant was out of commission for four days. Also, more than a week into the outage, Water Resources workers found a key 24-inch water valve in the River Arts District had been closed for several years.

Once opened it allowed water tanks in Candler to fill. The outage primarily affected South Asheville and the western part of Buncombe County, including Candler.

“The extreme, sustained cold temperatures certainly led to the loss of the Mills River facility and indirectly caused main breaks and the resulting record demands on the water system,” the report states. “However, the wide scale nature and duration of the outage event was largely avoidable and preventable.”

One infamous misstep during the crisis was the city’s inability to say how many water customers were affected.

“In an effort to give SOME estimate of the number of people affected, inaccurate information was provided to the public,” the report states. “The ‘About 38,000 people are affected’ was not based on actual outage data; it is the number of people signed up to receive AVL Alerts.”

Water Resources Department Director David Melton // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

“We do not find this misinformation to have been harmful to the public but it overestimated the impacts of the event,” the report states. “If anything, it helped relay how serious the situation was becoming. However, that number should never have been given and should not be used today.”

The report said elected officials did not receive timely updates, and those officials who did handle “themselves properly during the crisis,” according to proper crisis communications procedures, “were the ones essentially left out of the loop.”

“To her credit, the City Manager noted that this is one area where she felt she could’ve done better, both in informing all equally and preventing those with the information from exerting outsized influence,” the report states, referring to City Manager Debra Campbell.

“We respect the independent nature of the committee and look forward to Tuesday’s presentation,” Campbell said. “Clearly an exceptional amount of work has gone into the report and we look forward to the IRC presenting its findings to City Council and the community. We will continue to review the recommendations and are deeply committed to continuous improvement.”

“In the case of this event,” the report states, “most elected officials found out about the severity of the event from their friends and constituents. In some cases, their being out of town for the holidays added to their lack of direct information.”

The report states all levels of city personnel “identified the response to this crisis as ‘needing Improvement,’ citing an absence of training.

“Elected officials inserted themselves into operational areas which were the responsibility of departmental staff,” the report states. “This led to an emergency response which was described as ‘murky,’ ‘inappropriate,’ ‘unwieldy,’ and “cumbersome.’” 

The city’s communications efforts received criticism, as it did during the outage. Residents expressed outrage at the city’s inability to clearly explain what had happened and give residents an accurate estimate of when water would be restored. One resident suggested in comments to an Asheville Watchdog story that the city’s leaders asking for more patience could “eat glass.”

Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell speaks at the city’s Jan. 3 press conference on the water outage. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle.

City Council formed the Independent Review Committee in January after the water outage.

Yet the city never issued a definitive count of how many customers were affected. The city caught considerable heat for inaccurate and spotty communications during the outage, and for not providing a timeline or other information in a timely manner.

The outage 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. The Water Department’s “tabletop” emergency exercise in early December involved a tropical storm deluge scenario, not a cold weather event.

The IRC report makes more than 20 “Immediate Recommendations,” including a reevaluation of the “overall role of the Engineering Division within the Water Resources Department,” with consideration of adding a production engineer position. “The goal should be to hire or groom a knowledgeable, experienced Engineer who is engaged in the day-to-day operations and decision-making of the water utility.”

The Water Resources Department Director, David Melton, is not a licensed engineer.

Melton was hired in February 2016 as assistant director of the Water Resources Department and promoted to director in November 2018. He earns $135,688 annually, plus a $3,600 annual car allowance.

City Council member Antanette Mosley said Friday afternoon she had not had time to read the entire report and would withhold comment. Council member Maggie Ullman said in a text message she was “glad the waiting period is over and we have the info we need to fortify our water system.”

Asheville Watchdog was unable to reach City Council members Kim Roney, Sheneika Smith, Sandra Kilgore or Sage Turner for comment.

One of the report’s authors, Mike McGill, declined to comment until after it is presented to City Council at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, June 13.

Other recommendations include considering the creation of a “Water Utility Advisory Panel,” which would “be of assistance to the City Manager, City Council and the Mayor in their oversight responsibilities related to the (water department).”

Under “communications,” the committee recommends developing an updated crisis communications plan, and replacing the “operational approach” to public communications with a system where “communication professionals are elevated in importance and can have not just influence, but direct oversight of the crisis communications planning and implementation.”

The committee also recommends hiring a “Public Information Officer dedicated to the Water Resources Department.”

While the city blamed severe cold over Christmas — the low temperature hit 2 degrees on Dec. 23, zero on Dec. 24, and 12 degrees the next two nights — the cold snap was predicted days in advance and outside engineering experts have said it should not have been catastrophic. 

Melton initially said about a dozen pipes broke, but it turned out 27 ruptured, with the average age of broken lines being 45 years. Most of those pipes were cast iron, which becomes brittle as it ages.

While Melton and Manheimer described the cold snap as “unprecedented,” Asheville has had at least seven cold waves of equal or colder temperatures in the last 50 years, according to a former scientist with the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville.

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.

The nearby City of Hendersonville water plant, which serves that city and northern Henderson County, did not have significant outages.

The city required IRC members to sign “non-disclosure agreements,” or NDAs. Previously, City Attorney Brad Branham said the committee was “specifically designed to operate as an analytical task force.” 

“As is commonly the case with such bodies, it does not serve an advisory or other statutory purpose for the City Council,” Branham said. “Therefore, it is not a public body. Moreover, the function of the IRC requires a greater degree of confidentiality during their review process.”

State law provisions exclude making public information that deals with sensitive public infrastructure from public records,” Branham said.

“Therefore, documents and information about the City’s water system cannot be shared publicly due to security concerns,” Branham said earlier this year. “However, it is imperative that the IRC has access to these materials in order to effectively and conclusively accomplish their task. The only way to balance these concerns is to maintain a confidential environment for this group to do its work. In the end, all reports and findings will be made public and presented in an open meeting.”

The IRC members are:

  • Water subject matter experts: Ted Tyree, engineer at the Knoxville Utilities Board; Michael Holcombe, former director of the Asheville Water Resources Department; John McLaughlin, Director of internal development at Highfill Infrastructure Engineering.
  • Communication subject matter experts Mike McGill — owner of a public relations firm that specializes in water issues.
  • Rob Brisley — U.S. Customs/Border Protection Incident Management Branch Team; Previously employed at N.C. Department of Public Safety as incident management team specialist; Disaster Response Specialist Contractor.
  • Emergency management subject matter expert: Dennis Fagnant.
  • Residential water customers: Michele Ashley, Kim “Dirt” Murphy.
  • Business water customer: Carolyn Roy, owner of Biscuit Head restaurants.

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 Andrew R. Jones is an investigative reporter. Email

20 replies on “Water outage report: City botched communications, mayor exerted “extreme” pressure on staff members”

  1. Moral of the story is don’t live in Asheville water territory. Given the unlikely possibility of the city implementing all the recommendations, this debacle will happen again.

  2. First, I appreciate your continued follow up on this story. Without it, I feel our short attention spans and less than 24 hour news cycles would have allowed it to fizzle out. I’m sure there are many who hoped this would be the case.

    As part of the public, I actually think it’s pretty fair to say that the public demanded a timeline. If, during the first news conference, the message was that we don’t know they extent of the problem and we don’t know when it will be resolved, this would have been met with considerable outrage. It seems like this would have been a pretty accurate statement at the time, but it would have taken some tremendous will to actually make.

    On one hand, I don’t have much of a problem with the mayor/council putting pressure on people to determine the problem and start to implement a solution. I can see the concern around this being extreme, or implying that it’s job dependent, but at a certainly level you have to expect people to do what they are paid to do.

    I wonder – based on recently acquired knowledge of the role of council vs the city manager – if the mayor and/or council were actually acting within their authority here. My understanding is that they cannot direct any member of city staff, but this story makes it sound like they most certainly did. To be fair, they were forced into this position by the lack of input/leadership from the city manager, but was this legal?

  3. Dear Asheville/Buncombe ‘leaders’ — your ‘lack of emergency management training’ doesn’t cut the mustard twenty-plus years post 9-11-2001.

    First off, you already have TWO whole agencies of folks devoted to such things: and or

    Second, either you totally ignored them, or they are totally incompetent. Which means that either you or they need to be fired, retired, or resigned.

    Third, almost free incident training already exists. So, please don’t tell us it’s a budgetary issue: or or

  4. Again, great reporting! Leaves me thinking that I hope that city/county leaders and staff realize that emergency response procedures need to be a priority, stop making excuses and get to work. Air quality, water quality and delivery, other things I can’t think of now will be affected by weather extremes, climate change and pollution. Asheville/Buncombe has had a serious wake up call. Fortunately the wildfires in Canada did not majorly affect our air quality although I decided to close our windows for a few days. Community resilience is of the utmost importance. This may interest some readers:

  5. As a water customer, I find it unacceptable that the sole Residential Customer representative on the subcommittees (who is not a business owner), Michele Ashley, did not participate in the subcommittees or the creation of the report. It seems the public’s interest was not represented after all! Why didn’t the City Council appoint another person to represent “residential customers” when Michele was unable to participate?

  6. I find it remarkable the COA has never thought to create a map of their water pipes. They have had about 100 years to work on this, and it was never made a priority. MSD has a great map and knows exactly where everything is. Duke has an online app that tells you everything, but COA says its too difficult with the current system. I am not buying it. Someone is not doing their job. How many times do I drive over a divot in the road that was ‘fixed’ two weeks ago, only to find water seeping out again, bandaid, bandaid, bandaid. It is amazing we even have water (that is not brown). Throwing the Mayor under the bus is easy, at least she had enough heart to take the heat and pressure people to do something. This report reads like it was done by the Water Departments pals, soft on those whose job it is and hard on the easy targets. I am not impressed.

    1. Gordon,
      The Water Resources Department has very accurate maps of water lines. Due to security/terroism laws passed after 9-11, they are not allowed to share much of this with the average Joe. I do agree that the maps they showed during the press conferences were not great and that can/should be improved but hopefully not needed.

  7. Also in the report:

    “The sub-committee recognizes Mrs. Campbell was compelled to conduct an interview after community criticism of her absence which was unfounded and incorrect. The sub-committee understands and recognizes her need to conduct the interviews she did.”

    “City Manager properly carried out her role, with one exception she noted. The
    City Manager took on a great deal of criticism for her actions for not being a
    public face of the event. Facts reveal she was engaged early in the response and
    appropriately handled her role. City Managers are not COMMS leaders during
    incidents. One area where the City Manager stated actions could’ve been better
    was in her interactions with elected officials, who insisted they be directly in both
    the overall response and the public communications. She stated, and we agree,
    that a stronger structure to keep elected officials out of the response and
    COMMS processes would’ve been beneficial. This situation, however, was
    created by the lack of a proper crisis COMMS plan and structure in place.
    Without it, the City Manager didn’t have guardrails to support any efforts to keep
    elected officials out of the COMMS process.”

    Considering y’all published the below article, you should probably acknowledge these parts of the report:

    Whether the report’s assessment on Campbell’s role is correct or not, they did reach a very different conclusion.

  8. I’m only 1/3 of the way reading the full report. What is obvious is that those running the water system have no clue what they are doing. No idea what valves are open or closed even after being told they must have a valve closed in 2019. Stunning lack of caring and management.

  9. Again, gross incompetence in Asheville city government. In my opinion, Debra Campbell excels at keeping her head down in preparation for a cushy pension, and our elected Mayor and City Council members don’t have a clue how to run a city.

    They ALL need to go!

  10. It wasn’t even extreme weather, really, given that we’ve had multiple days of such temps over the past few decades. Extreme would have included a 16-inch snow just before or after the freeze. People surely would have been trapped and many might have died. We should be preparing for the worst, hoping for the best. Tabletop exercises should look at this scenario: extreme cold plus snow/ice event plus a massive fire at one of the mountain village apartment complexes being built plus perhaps a food shortage of some sort in the area due to limited deliveries or bridges washing out…

  11. Left out of this description is the fact that City staff actually *lied* to us about what they could or could not tell us. They told us Federal law forbade them from describing outage areas or making maps. And then two days later, they provided maps.

    Also, the notion that this group was not “advisory” and therefore not subject to open meeting laws and transparency is, in my view, preposterous on its face. They are submitting recommendations, for heaven’s sake!

    I look forward to Tuesday’s presentation to City Council.

  12. the article does not mention that the city failed at distributing water to the community. after 11 days, i would have expected that tractor trailers of water should have been available for community members to pick up at pre determined sites. at best, the distribution was spotty and not well done by asheville. telling folks to go buy water at ingles or publix was not helpful at all. better emergency planning is needed. and of course, better leadership.

  13. The report and the reportage just underline what any sentient person already knew. The city manager, the city council, and the mayor are totally in over their heads and don’t have a clue how to run this place. They are living proof that diversity is not the answer to political, social, or infrastructure problems.

    1. They’re not even diverse. Some just happen to be women, and some just happen to be women of color. The majority of humans have no idea that diversity is so much more than skin color and sexual preferences. The most diverse people I know are far more multi-faceted and don’t identify with such limited/limiting one-dimensional groups as gay, Black, trans or whatever…

  14. I happen to have worked on a Buncombe County Government Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). I was also in the military and in my Master of Project Management program we studied complex lessons learned reports… like for the space shuttle disasters. I actually look at reports like the 9/11 commission report.

    In no way shape or form that the Indecent Review Committee giving the city manager an OK for the communications around Christmas tell use if the process of onboarding Debra has worked out. She was just announced as the new city manager in 2018 after Gary Jackson was asked to resign.

    I happen to have asked for the COA COOP / Emergency Management plan in 2021 or 2022. Then, they selected a consultant to work on a new COA COOP / Emergency Management plan. I completed the associated public survey and pointed out the death and disability from narcotics like Illegally Manufactured Fentanyl (IMF) is an emergency.

    There might have been some actual casualties tied to the Christmas water outages. However, we know for sure there are have been close to 1000 deaths associated with IMF that are mostly about Asheville versus the rest of the county.

    It’s come up recently that Debra Campbell’s contract is up December 2. During the last election I was the person who pointed out municipal executives have an average six year tenure. The county manager, Avril Pinder, has no contract I found out recently. NC county managers apparently worked out legislation a long time ago where they get open ended employment.

    And Avril was just announced versus the people of Buncombe getting a chance to meet several candidates as part of an open government recruitment process. So, both Debra and Avril could have picked emergency management and the pillars of public safety and public health from Day 1. The rest of the water incident report shows a massive transformation program is needed.

    Debra was welcome to have had the insight to look into infrastructure issue as soon as she started with COA. But what we do know is that IMF trafficking was blasting off just before she came on board and the resultant public safety and public health emergency there is, well, whatever.

    Our municipal issues should not be assessed with ‘whatever’ criteria or with a sightless lens.

  15. What about the decision to sacrifice the south county water customers so the north county customers wouldn’t have to boil their water? Why was this not included?

  16. What I gather from the report is let’s hire an engineer who knows this craft because the ones we have are not competent. The report didn’t even include how the top people were on vacation during this event which was mentioned while it was happening.

  17. I can’t get past the idea that this water outage was the result of ineptitude. Where were the civil engineers trained in hydrolics? Besides being able to understand the capacity of a system, they could understand problems and give reasonable actions vs. hitting the panic button and shutting down and causing drainage/ loss of pressure in a system. How many more ignorant decisions are we paying for every day?

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