Sunday, February 21, 2010

Catastophic Failure of Asheville Water Line?

Are sections of Asheville's 130 year old water distribution system at risk of a catastrophic failure? Although it is possible it is highly unlikely.
I have received several inquiries in response to a post from a couple weeks ago so it seems a follow up would be appropriate. The chronic water main leak that was the topic of my blog post seems to have raised some concerns about the condition of the system. The attached video is of my most recent inspection on February 19, 2010.
As reported in my initial post this leak has been reoccurring over at least a six year period that I have been aware of it. At times the leak has been significantly greater than its current rate of approximately 200,000 gallons per year. As you can see in the video it has leaked aggressively enough and long enough to have eroded away a section of the earthen bank and large root structure of a tree directly in the spray path of the leak.  

The original water system in Asheville dates from the 1880s when Asheville constructed a reservoir on Beaucatcher Mountain, collecting water from various springs and branches. Pipes were laid and unfiltered water distributed by gravity flowed down into the town. The distribution system currently consists of approximately 1600 miles of piping, 32 pumping stations and 27 reservoirs. Some sections of the system are indeed very old. The leak that I refer to is from an exposed joint in a section of 24" diameter cast iron pipe with Lead packed joints. This is one of three primary transmission lines that feed from either the North Fork or Beetree reservoir.

Although Asheville water maintenance is aware of the leak and responds quickly to reports of an increase in the flow rate, repairs typically only last than a few weeks to a couple months.
This is by no means a unique condition. The probability of water distribution infrastructure failure is a growing concern throughout the country. I can assure that this leak in the Swannanoa valley is not the only one on the Asheville system nor is it the worst leak. It is however, visible; and thereby presents a consistent reminder of the need for greater attention to a very real problem that is not typically on the minds of most people.

Asheville has an annual budget of 5.8 million dollars for water system maintenance and improvements. The budget funds are derived from taxes and fees charged to commercial and residential water customers.

This past fall I had an opportunity to visit with Mayor Bellamy while attending the grand opening celebration of the Aqua Environmental Resource Center in West Asheville. Mayor Bellamy is a strong advocate for improving water efficiency throughout the region. I look forward to working with her further in developing community awareness programs.

Repairing the leak in Swannanoa would be quite an undertaking to say the least. I'd like to think this leak will be corrected in the near future, but after six years of monitoring, it doesn't seem to be a priority. I hope it doesn't take a catastrophic failure to become one. 


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