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Weighing a need: County prepares for waterline projects

Commissioner Gary McAllister, Commissioner Bryan Davenport and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy listens as a citizen discusses his water needs. (Photo by Marina Waters)

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

It takes only about 15 minutes to get from the Washington County Courthouse to Allen and Jan Neal’s house on Taylor Bridge Road. Yet somehow, they still don’t have running water from a local water utility source. But that’s what the Washington County’s Water Task Force is working to change.

The group, comprised of county officials and members of Johnson City, Kingsport and Jonesborough’s water services, met for the first time in 2020 on Friday, Feb. 28, to discuss the county’s waterline capital improvement plan feasibility study and decide the next steps for the project.

“I think this will be different from the last time. The last time meaning we weren’t quite organized like this. I didn’t know any of these folks,” Commissioner Bryan Davenport said referring to the task force members from the three water service groups. “I don’t think we’re starting from ground zero. We’ve got a little bit of a process now. And I better understand the process now from what you all have taught me.”

In 2017, the commission worked with local water services to begin connecting 359 county roads not currently connected to public waterlines. Since then, some residents on roads such as Hunt Road, Ford Creek Road, Sliger Road and Thornburg Hills Road have been connected to utility water. At the time, former Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge told the Herald & Tribune the water project spanning throughout the county would likely take $100 million and over 25 years to complete.

Now, the study from the civil engineering, surveying and environmental consulting group Tysinger, Hampton and Partners, Inc. said there are more than 200 miles of Washington County roadway that currently do not have access to public water. 

Most of the residents in areas of the county without public water use wells and springs for their water needs. The study said those sources can be unreliable in both quantity and quality of water and contamination can also be a concern.

For Allen and Jan Neal, that’s certainly been a worry.

“We have been here in the past trying to see about getting water on our road,” Allen Neal said at the water task force meeting. “We have several families past our place that their wells are bad. Some of them actually ran out of water. Some of them are contaminated. I’m lucky. So far mine still works. Who knows how long that will last. The reason I’m here today is I just wanted to find out if our road will be addressed.”

Engineer Jill Workman with TH&P told the committee the group prioritized the list by the number of existing structures on each road, cost per structure and well-depth. From there, the list was narrowed down to 32 roads within Jonesborough, Kingsport or Johnson City’s utility service areas.

“That’s about 40 miles, 574 structures, 787 properties,” Workman told the task force. “That’s quite a bit still. But the price tag is still around $16 million. We were targeting a plan of about $10 million worth of improvements. That was the next task, to reduce this comprehensive list down to $10 million worth of capital improvements.”

The estimated project cost to serve all 359 roads was $40 million (based on a unit cost of $35 per linear foot of water line). The study said the county plans to install $5 million to $10 million-worth of waterline extensions grouped in project phases of approximately $1 to $2 million. 

Before the task force honed in on price tags, Davenport said he felt the group needed a better idea of what the next steps are for each water department.

“There are things you have to do before you even consider (doing the work on the lines). I’d like to have a flow diagram of what is necessary before you could even start,” Davenport said. “If we had $40 million and money was not an object, what would you do next? You’ve got to start somewhere. You can’t just throw money in the pile and expect it to get done.”

And part of that process could involve grants.

First Tennessee Development District Deputy Director Ken Rea said at the meeting that the county used a community development block grant program in the past. He also said more than half of the residents in the area submitted for the grant must be moderate to low-income families. This grant, he said is typically in the “80-20 range”, which means the grant would cover about 80 percent of the project while the county would cover the rest.

“It’s a program that you really benefit by having a lot of people served per dollar,” Rea said. “It’s a challenge to find the right project.”

Looking ahead, Davenport added that he felt the more information that was in the community, the better. He also said he felt it was important the community knew how long a project like this would actually take — and that the need is there for each person on the water need list.

“We have to look at each project as it is and make our judgement by each project,” Davenport said. “When you don’t do things consistently, people think that’s unfair. It’s really not, it’s just different situations. Those are things I’m concerned about. The inconsistency is very difficult. 

“We have a huge list. And the person at the bottom of that list is in just as much need as the person on top of that list.”