Asheville's Christmas water crisis is over. Here's what we can do to keep it from happening again.
By Suzanne Boothby
Suzanne Boothby is co-author of Superman's Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We The People Can Do About it and the executive editor of The Brockovich Report, a newsletter from Erin Brockovich talking about the national water crisis, toxic chemicals and other problems in your backyard. Boothby lives in West Asheville.
After spending years interviewing people throughout the country going through various types of water crises, there’s one consistent pattern: most people don’t think about their water until a problem with it turns up at their door.
When there’s no water coming out of the tap, it’s not just about drinking water. There’s no water to make your morning coffee or tea. No way to flush the toilet. No showering or washing hands. No way to run a business—especially if you run a restaurant or brewery. No school.
It’s a huge disruption.
That’s exactly what an estimated 38,500 people in Asheville experienced during the Christmas holiday this year, which is more than a third of our 94,000 residents.
While my neighborhood in West Asheville did not experience water outages, my heart went out to everyone who was impacted.
Like many Asheville residents who were not directly impacted, I learned about the widespread water crisis from social media.
But as someone who has worked alongside Erin Brockovich covering water stories in communities throughout the U.S., I was not surprised that our city was not prepared to immediately communicate the problem or quickly arrange ways for folks to access water.
Most communities are not.
And even fewer people are tracking the big picture across the country. These disruptions are happening everywhere.
That’s partially due to our aging infrastructure. The average American town maintains a water system that’s at least 50 years old. More antiquated systems have water mains that are at least a century old. They’re not prepared to weather storms, especially as they are now more frequent and more severe.
Water systems are largely invisible to residents, as millions of miles of underground pipes carry this essential resource from the source to our homes and businesses.
We have these incredible water systems underneath our feet, and we don’t think to check on them until the water coming out of our tap is brown, smells foul or isn’t coming out at all.
And as the New York Times reported, subfreezing temps in much of the South brought many water systems to a halt. In 2021, millions of people across Texas experienced water outages and boil-water notices because of a massive winter storm.
Communities everywhere are under pressure.
Ongoing infrastructure issues, lack of resources, misappropriated funds and shortsighted decisions go right along with toxic contamination to impact our water supply each day.
In fact, a water main breaks in the U.S. every 2.5 minutes or so, Casey Dinges, senior managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers told PBSNews back in 2017.
These breaks are caused by many factors, including changes in temperature, corrosion and deterioration of old pipes. Repairing these breaks usually requires the water to be shut off, and during that time contaminants can enter the water supply.
Water main breaks can also cause water pressure in parts of a water system to drop to dangerously low levels, which is most likely what happened here in Asheville.
I do feel hopeful that the tone at the press conferences about our water issues have been both concerned and apologetic. You’d be surprised how often elected officials can be defensive and dismissive.
At a Jan. 3 press conference, Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell apologized to residents for setting out a timeline for water service restoration that the city clearly did not meet.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, flanked by Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore and fellow City Council members Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley, also opened with an apology to everyone who experienced a water outage.
“Please know that we deeply care about our residents’ well-being and the impacts this outage has had on you, your families and also to our business community," Manheimer said.
David Melton, the city’s water resources director, when asked what lessons the city had learned from this outage, said his department will be doing its own analysis of the incident.
“There are always lessons to be learned,” and the department is compiling information, he said.
In addition, he said his department is planning for the next cold snap by preparing to do “heat tracing” and adding some heat sources to keep chemical lines from freezing.
This experience can serve as a wake-up call for more residents to get interested and involved.
You may have heard of some of the more infamous communities dealing with water issues: Hinkley. Flint. Benton Harbor. Newark. Navajo Nation. Camp Lejeune. Red Hill. Jackson.
We learn from their mistakes. It’s clear that maintaining clean water for all residents does necessitate more people taking an interest in our water.
That can start with getting to know our watershed and water sources.
Our 2021 Consumer Confidence Report (also called a water quality report) tells us that our primary water sources are located in eastern Buncombe County, where the water flows from pure mountain springs and streams into lakes known as the North Fork and Bee Tree Reservoirs, located in Black Mountain and Swannanoa. These lakes are surrounded by 20,000 acres of highly protected mountain forests owned by the City of Asheville. Our secondary source of water is the Mills River. The Mills River Water Treatment Plant, which went down in this latest outage, was put into operation in late 1999.
(An annual water report is provided to customers by July 1 each year. It should come in the mail with your water bill. If you pay your bill online, you can go directly to the utility’s website and get a copy or request a downloadable PDF.)
Support our water treatment professionals. Water treatment differs by community, depending on the quality of the source water that enters the treatment plant. These experts have the experience and knowledge to understand the science of water quality, and we should support them to continue to learn and keep up with the latest technologies that can improve our system and infrastructure.
Show up at city council meetings and ask questions to those in charge about how we can continue to improve and prepare for the storms ahead. The next meeting of the Asheville City Council will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 5 p.m. Our mayor has announced that at next week’s meeting, we will start moving ahead with appointing an independent review committee that will review the water outage, assess infrastructure needs and examine the city's response.
If you want to dive deeper into some of the specifics of what’s going on with the water in Asheville, check out Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Tap Water Database, which compiles years of test results from nearly 50,000 water utilities across all 50 states, cataloging more than 320 contaminants.
You can enter your zip code and learn more about how “legal” does not necessarily equal “safe” when it comes to certain contaminants found in drinking water. Getting a passing grade from the federal government does not always mean the water meets the latest health guidelines.
Asheville, let’s break the pattern and start paying attention to the critical need for a safe and reliable water system before the next crisis comes.
Suzanne Boothby is co-author of Superman's Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We The People Can Do About it and the executive editor of The Brockovich Report, a newsletter from Erin Brockovich talking about the national water crisis, toxic chemicals and other problems in your backyard.
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Incredibly useful information here, thanks Jason and Suzanne for sharing