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Butler's water problems are improving

By Jonathan Pleasant
It’s a month out from a major shutdown of the Carderview Utility District and customers are still under a boil water alert issued by the state. However, even with the many problems that the district’s operators and commissioners have been facing over the past few weeks, things do appear to be getting better. Having officially changed their policy to meet monthly rather than quarterly, the board once again addressed a group of concerned customers Monday night, although with a greatly reduced turnout.
The primary concerns voiced again this month revolved around communication improvements, especially related to updates with the water system. Commissioner David Markland assured those attending that the board is diligently working toward better notifications, including the use of One Call, an automated service that will be used to call customers in the advent of an emergency or critical development.
Other discussion was held for providing better digital communications, including better diligence with the utility’s Facebook page. According to customer Bob Johnson, the last posting was on January 27th, and was one of just a handful since the crisis began. Office manager Sharon Church admitted that there has been little time to put up minor postings, but also reiterated that anything major will be reported. Suggestions were also made to begin incorporating customer emails, which Church explained was already underway.
Additional notices will likely be run in the media, both through the newspaper and television, but more importantly, One Call should be up and running within the week and may get its trial run depending on the results of the system’s most recent testing. Operator Odes Robertson confirmed that required flushing of the water lines had been conducted and test samples sent to the state. With the integrity of the system now stabilized, Carderview is waiting for results and a decision from the state field office in Johnson City. At earliest, the board will likely have an answer by Wednesday or Thursday and will hopefully be able to send out information lifting the boil alert.
Additional flushing may be necessary in the future on a small scale, with Robertson indicating that individual line breaks could require isolated work, but major flushing should be completed. This came as a relief to many customers who noted the often dark, murky water coming through the lines as a result. In fact there was a request to add flushing events to the list of notifications so that customers will be able to accommodate the effect on appliances such as washing machines and water heaters that can be damaged by stopped up filters.
Commissioner Markland agreed that an announcement would be a good idea before the district flushes a line, but also cautioned that in emergency situations calling for immediate repair the announcement may be short notice. The board also suggested that since major flushing of the system is completed, customers may want to change their filters and flush their own lines running from the outside meter to the house. This is a simple process of just opening up an outside faucet and allowing several gallons to run through and clean out any older water that may be in the lines.  
The trouble that put the utility in this situation initially began several weeks ago when intensely cold weather led to numerous breaks that are still being located and repaired. Because many homes are summer homes with no residents present at this time of year, the task of identifying all problems has been very slow and difficult. Ultimately the water loss due to the leaks has increased demand beyond what the system can supply. Under normal circumstances, Carderview operates at just 30 percent of capacity, relying on two wells and gravity fed sand filtration system to sustain its reserves.
Currently the wells will supply about 55 gallons per minute and uses just 30 gallons per minute to supply on a normal basis. However at the time of the shutdown Robertson explained that the demand quadrupled, shooting up to more than 120 gallons per minute and far in excess of anything that the system could supply. Calling it a catastrophic failure, Robertson explained that efforts are underway to help avert future emergencies, including the installation of a new reserve tank that will buy the system some time to react in the future.
Discussion was also held concerning the expansion of the utility’s current water source, such as the addition of a third well or better pumps and filters. While any of these options does have the potential to increase the overall capacity, the expenses involved are simply too high to currently be a viable option. As Robertson explained, in addition to the thousands of dollars it would cost to drill a well initially, the district would also have to submit to several more thousand dollars of testing by the state before it could become a public water source. If the well was then found to be lacking by the state, it would mean that the money was completely wasted.
The other major option to provide a backup source was a discussion of efforts to finally connect Carderview to Mountain City’s water system via a meter on Copley Branch Road. An ongoing project, the board explained that it is looking at a couple of choices including using a two-inch line versus a six-inch line, especially taking into consideration the extra pressure of the city’s water. Intended as an emergency backup, Mountain City actually has enough pressure to provide water anywhere in Butler, even in troublesome higher elevation areas such as the Horseshoe Cove neighborhood.
As with most things, the only problems with the connection are financial, with early estimates coming in at just over $20,000 for the project. With no money in reserve to attribute to the construction, the only options left would be to try to find potential grant money and emergency funds or to borrow the money. With the borrowing option Commissioner Doug Phillips cautioned that it might mean a $3-$5 rate increase, which would be the third since 2010. That led to a discussion of how much customer support there might be and suggestions such as including a survey on the monthly water bills.
Phillips felt that the decision to raise rates to cover the cost of a Mountain City connection should be up to the customers and encouraged as much feedback as possible. While some, like office manager Sharon Church, felt that the connection would diminish Carderview’s independence as a system, most of the board believed that it will become the best choice for providing reliable water. However, Robertson did once again caution that the hook up does carry its own complexities, considering that Mountain City’s system is different from Butler both in the increased pressure and additives such as fluoride.
The pressure issue would likely be taken care of by installing a reduction valve, but because of the up and down nature of the system, Robertson also noted that some households might have to install pressure reducing valves of their own depending on where they are. There are also some concerns about the installation of the new line itself, such as meeting the requirements of TDOT, TVA, TWRA, and other major state and federal organizations.
All in all, while Carderview is still facing significant challenges, the board did seem more optimistic about improvements that will not only restore the system back to normal levels but could significantly improve service in the future. With communications hopefully improving and new policies being put into place, January’s big freeze may actually become the trial by fire that Carderview has long needed, heralding significant changes for the better.