By Leslee Kulba-
Members of Asheville City Council have made it abundantly clear they want the city to retain control of the water system. The reasons were no doubt explained during the numerous closed sessions held over the years of the protracted struggle for control. The public is only expected to deal with information shaped by the city’s information officers, or those of the competing interests.
At Tuesday’s special worksession, Mayor Terry Bellamy wanted to stress some bragging points. Since the dissolution of the Regional Water Authority in 2006, Standard & Poor’s has upgraded the water system’s bond rating to AA+. One reason the city received the second-highest rating was the issuance of bonds for system repairs. Under the water authority, which had been described as too diverse and ungainly to make decisions, the system had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Bond raters had described the system as “dysfunctional.” Read more…
The mayor was also pleased that the water system has achieved ISO 14001 certification. The designation indicates the organization is passing annual audits and subjecting itself to a recertification process that occurs every 3-4 years. The mayor added that evaluators in a recent peer review were “wowed by” the system’s best management practices.
Water Resources Director Steve Shoaf received the George Warren Fuller Award in 2011. Awardees are selected by the American Water Works Association “for their distinguished service to the water supply field and in commemoration of the sound engineering skill, the brilliant diplomatic talent, and the constructive leadership of the members of the Association who exemplified the life of George Warren Fuller one of America’s most eminent engineers.” Shoaf now serves on an international board of water system directors.
Bellamy wanted to show the public Tuesday that the system was not “egregiously run,” but that it was “effective and efficient.” She did not want people interpreting Representative Tim Moffitt’s attempts to transfer control of the water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District as due punishment “because we have done something wrong.”
Shoaf described the water system, as, among other things, “successful,” “well-run,” responsive to customers, and in line with council’s strategic operating goals. The system’s current operating budget is $33,531,552, with $7,438,564 budgeted for capital improvements. With 147 FTE positions, staffing is about the same size as that of the Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Staff gathered facts to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. Although any causal relationship has not been publicly stated, consideration of any increase in water rates through 2014 ceased when the state legislature got serious about passing bills that would transfer control of the system. The city also provides breaks to special customers. These include tap and fee rebates for affordable housing developments, rebates for water line installations for Smart Growth developments, and adjustments to water bills to compensate for leaking lines.
Councilman Marc Hunt asked for a rehash on the role topography, as opposed to mismanagement, plays on the abundance of water leaks in the area. Shoaf replied he came from an area where 100 psi was considered high pressure. In Asheville’s water system, the average pressure is 280 psi. The same lines, in many instances, must pump water uphill and then downhill. When consultants Brown & Caldwell evaluated the system, they found the amount of leakage on a par with that of water systems in similar terrains.
At last week’s meeting, Asheville City Council approved a rash of water system improvements by way of the consent agenda. A deathbed repentance of such magnitude could only be construed as subterfuge to make the system look well-run. Among requests for waterline replacements and tank upkeep was a request for a $2 million change order for the Main Water Transmission Line Evaluation Project. City Manager Gary Jackson asked council to pull this item so staff could explain it in detail at a worksession.
As pipes were laid in the Asheville area, some almost a century ago, nobody kept a record of where they were. Shoaf explained that parts of the mainline running from the reservoir to town are under houses and under roads. Proper easements were not obtained, because people didn’t know they were building on top of a major utility.
The proposed project would work somewhat like arthroscopy. A camera would be sent down the water line. As it went, it could gauge the thickness, constitution, and condition of the pipe. When the camera arrived at a valve or other connection of interest, it would “ping” to plot it using GPS technology. Shoaf said in deciding whether or not to conduct the exploration, he calculated the expenditure would be only 5 percent of the replacement cost for the entire line.
Age is not necessarily an indication of the life of a line. Although some piping is likely corroded due to soil pH or proximity to natural gas lines, other segments will likely stay sound for years.