By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
We are all opponents of disruption. We love normalcy. When things function to our satisfaction or comfort level, we don’t want snags. If you have exposed water pipes, you know how aggravating it is when your routine gets changed by a frozen and busted water line. But when the weather is fair and the water is flowing, we typically don’t think about taking the measures necessary to prevent those aggravating circumstances that come with the winter freeze. What could and would take care of us in the summer is not sufficient for the winter. So, our lives are complicated, albeit ever so slightly but significantly, because we failed to make the changes necessary for maintaining the status quo.
Back in late October, early November, the tribal leadership began to reveal a plan to deal with outdated and overloaded water and sewer lines in Cherokee, specifically beginning with a major line project along the length of Acquoni Road from downtown to the Cherokee Central School in Big Cove. The issue necessitating the line replacements have been around and accumulating for years. Lines designed for the load of the smaller population of decades ago are now strained because, over the years, not only have these lines deteriorated, but the number of new constructions and increased populations are stressing the lines and water and sewer systems to the breaking point.
For example, the week before Christmas, two catastrophic mishaps occurred, and both were potentially attributable to the overloaded and aging water lines. The Kituwah, LLC main office was burned to the ground. One report (not confirmed) was that during the fight to get the blaze under control, a fire hydrant lost pressure and the Cherokee Fire Department had to use back up plans to put the fire out. Our Cherokee Fire and Emergency personnel did an outstanding job in ensuring the damage was minimized, but the entire Kituwah, LLC office was totaled. Had it not been for the firefighters’ quick thinking and actions, adjacent buildings might have suffered the same fate.
Only a day or two later, a water line failed at the Ginger Lynn Welch Complex (just before the tribal employee Christmas breakfast). As employees started to arrive at the GLW at the back entrance to start their workday, they were met with standing water on nearly half of the building. By midday, damage mediation teams were in the building assessing and preparing to begin what could be a lengthy restoration process.
EBCI Support Services stated, “At this time, the timeline for restoration of any damage caused by this incident has not been determined. Our primary concern is for the safety and welfare of our employees, so please be patient as we take the necessary time to ensure that clean-up, repair, and abatement measures are performed to the highest standard and at the quickest pace possible.” Our tribal leaders are working quickly to get things back to normal at the Ginger Lynn Welch Complex but dealing with the complications of structural damage and sanitary concerns may take some time.
An overview of the water/sewer line project was presented at a November stakeholder meeting, one of many planned by tribal leadership. In a document distributed at the time, an overview of the project was given. It included “replacement of the undersized water and sewer lines (US 19 to Saunooke Bridge Road); ancillary improvements including pedestrian and bike paths, drainage improvements, and roadway”.
The document stated the plan is to do this project in two phases; phase one will be Acquoni Road from Acquoni Road-Tsalagi Road (US 19) to Drama Road; phase two will be Acquoni Road-Drama Road to Big Cove Road. The timeline presented in the document showed a start month of December 2022 with a completion date for phase one of May 26, 2023. Phase two is scheduled to begin November or December 2023 with an undetermined completion date.
The status quo will be disrupted for an extended period. The initial contractor for the project, Vaugh-Melton, along with tribal leadership, is incorporating measures to mitigate the disruption as much as possible. For example, on Acquoni Road, they plan to maintain two-lane traffic throughout the project, shifting the lanes so as to complete pipeline work on one side of the road down the length of the project, then moving the lanes over so that work can be completed down the other side until there is a finish. On Big Cove Road, since there is not room between the road and river to do two lane shifts, a traffic control unit will be established to regulate traffic during the construction period to minimize delays.
Project materials (pipeline) have already been purchased for the entire project to save time and money. There won’t be delays for material purchases because they are already here, being stored at the old high school site.
Leadership from our Water and Sewer Department have been monitoring and patching the exiting water and sewer lines for quite some time. If recent events are any indication, we seem to have reached a breaking point. Two catastrophic failures during a couple of days should tell us that it is well past time to make the necessary replacements and upgrades. We cannot continue to add loads like new businesses, new residences, and new facilities, to existing old, under sized lines and not expect increasing failures.
Will we be inconvenienced by this construction project? Yes, more than likely. You can’t do a project of this size without some disruption of the traffic pattern and periodic issues with water availability. But the benefits of getting this done now will be felt for many years, possibly many decades to come. As we continue to grow and prosper as a tribe, the infrastructure of aging lines must be addressed to be able to continue to provide services now and in the future. If we don’t address these water and sewer issues now, we may be forced into doing them under emergency conditions and at a greater cost.
I am glad to see tribal leadership moving forward on much needed help for our community. While these new lines are being installed, and maybe traffic snarls are impeding us, let’s all remember why it is happening and be patient as these improvements make our lives better. Like many other things in our government and lives, we shouldn’t be satisfied with the status quo.