One morning three years ago, after a pipe broke, the small mountain town of Bakersville awoke to a community nightmare – no water.
“We lost all the water we had in our reservoir overnight, and it’s a scary thought,” recalled Mayor Charles Vines, who has been in office for 25 years. “We hauled water for almost 60 hours in milk truck tankers approved by the state.”
Bakersville is among the North Carolina communities that, even in the best times, has to stretch its water budget.
Cane Creek is not big enough to be relied on, so the town gets its water from wells that are pumped only a few hours a day. Acidic mountain soil eats at the galvanized metal of water lines installed in the 1940s and 1950s. Crews replace lines as they can.
The town has grown creative in nursing its tenuous water supply.
Rainwater running off the Town Hall roof is stored to water ornamental plants. The fire department pumps water from creeks instead of hydrants. Water bills are monitored for spikes that might uncover leaks.
In some communities, scarce water is sometimes compounded by the waste of it.
A mile high in the mountains, the ski town of Beech Mountain is searching for a new water source – while leaking more than half its treated water from the poorly built lines a resort developer installed. Replacing the water lines and other infrastructure would cost the town of 319 year-round residents $34.5 million, according to a 2011 estimate.
North Carolina’s water infrastructure needs, such as corroding pipes, are conservatively estimated at $10 billion. That’s ninth-highest among the states.
“When you go to bed and have to wonder whether you’ll have any water in the morning,” said Vines, the Bakersville mayor, “it never leaves your mind.”