At their Jan. 24 meeting, the Asheville City Council appointed members to a new independent review committee in the wake of last month’s water system failure, which left much of the service area without potable water during the holiday season.

Beginning on Dec. 24, several water-treatment plants in the Asheville area began to experience issues, with outages occurring until Jan. 1. The water system outages left thousands of residents without potable water for a week. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer referred to the outages as an “unprecedented crisis” at a press conference updating residents on the water system restoration on Dec. 30.

But such issues with the Asheville water system could have been avoided, according to some critics, had the water-revenue funds been used properly for infrastructure and repairs instead of on other projects, or if an independent water system plan, passed by the General Assembly, had not been declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

Asheville water system
Image from a city announcement during December 2022 water outages.

Carolina Journal spoke with Republican former N.C. House Rep. Chuck McGrady, who discussed his views on the water system problems as well as efforts he took to fix them during his tenure in the General Assembly. McGrady said that complications have been occurring for years, and he took issue with Asheville’s handling of funds meant to support the system’s infrastructure.

“Back in 2003 there was an authority to deal with water between Buncombe County and the city of Asheville and that resulted in them being allowed to take some of the water revenues and distribute them either to the county or the city, meaning those revenues weren’t being consistently put back to fund repair of infrastructures or replacement of infrastructures,” McGrady said. “That’s a real problem. You have to maintain these systems. It’s not just about pulling the revenue in. You need to pull the revenue in and bank some of it because you know you’re going to need to replace those pipes; you’re going to need to replace that plant.”

McGrady said there were two things that led to the current Asheville water crisis. The first is that the city wasn’t doing enough to repair and improve the system. The other is that a large portion of those served by the water system do not live in Asheville, so they can’t vote to make changes to the city-run system.

“Around 40% of the users of the Asheville system do not live within the City of Asheville,” McGrady said. “Therefore, if they have water problems, they really don’t have anywhere to go. These municipal systems are not regulated in the same way that a private water company would be, so they don’t have the option of voting out the mayor and council if they’re not providing good water or enough water. Forty percent of those utility customers really have no recourse here when there are problems. I think that’s a serious issue.”

McGrady previously helped to craft 2013 legislation (HB 488) aimed at fixing the Asheville water system infrastructure, along with fellow Republicans state Sen. Tim Moffitt, R-Hendersonville, who was a state House member at the time; and former House Rep. Nathan Ramsey.

“Tim and I put forward legislation along with former Rep. Nathan Ramsey to take various pieces of water and sewer infrastructure and combine it into the Metropolitan Sewer district,” McGrady said. “The goal was to repurpose it to be an independent authority and ensure that money was used wisely in terms of making investments in infrastructure.”

C.J. reached out to Sen. Moffitt for his comments on the bill and current crisis, but he could not be reached in time for publication.

The legislation was ultimately ruled unconstitutional in 2016 by the majority Democrat N.C. Supreme Court at the time, after a multi-year battle by the City of Asheville to maintain control of its system. But now, more than 6 years later, McGrady and others who fought for an independent authority believe maintaining the status quo played a big part in the current crisis.

“The City of Asheville challenged the law which would have combined the city’s water system, and the region’s sewer system, with Henderson County’s sewer system, to create a regional water and sewer system,” McGrady said. “The Supreme Court, in my opinion incorrectly, determined that that legislation was unconstitutional, so nothing happened. The consolidation did not go forward.”

When asked whether the law could possibly be reinstated, McGrady doesn’t believe it is feasible to do so even with a newly elected Republican majority on the state’s highest court.

“I don’t think it is easy to do that,” he said. “Unlike with redistricting decisions or Voter ID, where the legislature has weighed into the issue again, the legislature hasn’t weighed into this issue again. One would have to make a whole new case for it.”

Among the agenda topics covered during the city council meeting on Jan. 24, the council passed a motion naming residential water customer Michele Ashley; commercial water customer Carolyn Roy; communications professionals Mike McGill and Rob Brisley; and public water systems subject matter experts John McLaughlin, Ted Tyree, and Michael Holcombe to the independent review committee. Two additional members will be appointed by Buncombe County.

The goals of the committee, according to Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell, are to “provide a comprehensive account of the water outage, assess the operational and emergency response and communication efforts, and recommend infrastructure and procedural enhancements.”

In a statement provided to C.J., Campbell said she’s optimistic that the city will be able to effectively handle any future issues with the water system and provide quality service to customers.

“While we deeply regret the interruption of service and inconvenience to our community members impacted by the recent water incident in the City of Asheville, the experience helped identify potential vulnerabilities in our water infrastructure and communication process in a crisis,” she said. “We as the City welcome the lessons learned as our top priority remains providing City of Asheville water resource customers with clean, safe and readily accessible water.”

On the establishment of the review committee, McGrady believes it is a short-term solution that poses no long-term benefit.

“It won’t do anything near term,” he said. “I certainly don’t have any problem with the idea that you have a committee to look at what happened and make recommendations going forward. It sounds like they learned a lot based on prior council meetings. There were serious communications issues here with the customers. Ultimately the solution to that is if you screw up, there should be consequences. That’s why we were trying to help the 40% of residents who don’t have any recourse.”