Fish Springs residents drained by dry weather

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   After three years of drought conditions, a string of 90-degree days, and clouds that promise rain but fail to deliver, Fish Springs residents knew it had to happen: Their streams and springs are running dry.
   J.R. Campbell, principal at Little Milligan Elementary School, said, "I was afraid this past week might be the telling point since it's not rained -- and now it's starting. Mom's been out of water two days. The spring went dry. There are three households, at least, on that line."
   Campbell has been instrumental in getting talks going between Fish Springs and Elk Mills residents, state officials, and Hampton Utility District in an effort to bring dependable drinking water to the area.
   Retha Campbell, a Fish Springs resident for nearly 90 years, is still hopeful of having utility water during her lifetime.
   Campbell said Retha approached him on Election Day. "The first thing she said was: 'Are we going to get that water?' She's drilled two wells and they're not letting her drink out of the second well, so she's carrying water from the spring."
   Debra Kempton, who lives on Whaleytown Road in Fish Springs -- a stone's throw from Watauga Lake -- said she and her grandson both are connected to the same cistern. A veteran, Kempton said, "One day, I stopped to think: 'You know, I would have given my life for this country at one time -- and I can't even get water! Gee whiz, where's the justice here?'"
   Kempton said she still has a little water, "but I try not to use any. I go to my daughter's for showers. I do my laundry at the laundromat because I have no water for wash. I flush my toilet once a day or once every two days. It would be nice to have a shower more than just once a week."
   Kempton's grandson has been hauling water every week from Smith Spring near Little Milligan, she said. "It takes up a good part of the day to bring it. He has to borrow a truck and he has to borrow a tank."
   With one of the cleanest lakes in the state close by, "I just can't imagine why I can't have water," she said. "You can go to the end of my driveway, look down the hill, and see all kinds of water. And I can come in here and not get anything out of my faucet."
   Another local resident who moved to Fish Springs in 1990, said, "We've had to have water hauled ever since. We've got a cistern, but, you know, if it doesn't rain ..."
   Gay Irwin, program manager for the Division of Water Supply, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, held several meetings with Fish Springs and Elk Mills residents last year to discuss options for acquiring utility water. Representatives from Tysinger & Hampton, an engineering firm, attended one of the meetings and offered to complete an engineering report at no charge. The report is one of the first steps toward receiving grant money to develop a water source.
   Irwin said Wednesday, "It is my understanding from Gary Tysinger of Tysinger & Hampton that they are currently working on the preliminary engineering report and they anticipate having that completed by Aug. 30."
   The report will include a cost estimate on running a water line 5 miles, from Watauga Point to Little Milligan. Once completed, the information can be presented to Hampton Utility District or another utility district to see whether they are willing to apply for a grant through First Tennessee Development District or Rural Development to pay for infrastructure.
   Meanwhile, Irwin said, she, county and community representatives have explored other options. Bill Finney, who lives near Little Milligan, found a spring on U.S. Forest Service land which backs his property. After two full-day walks to look at the spring, "Andrew Tolley from Division of Water Pollution Control utilized his people to save the community the expense, and they actually did a flow measurement on the stream," according to Irwin.
   "What we had hoped to find was a spring that we could capture where it came out of the ground and be able to make a determination that it was true ground water. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a series of streams."
   Irwin said residents first would have had to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw a percentage of the water. However, after the flow measurement was taken, "there is not enough, first, to even serve the community; or, secondly, to justify the cost associated with transmission and filtration."
   So the group is back at square one, looking for water sources and alternatives. "If Hampton is financially not able to go for a grant ... then what other options do these people have?" Irwin asked. "I've thought about: Can we bring water from Johnson County? which is the only other place we've got."
   Mountain City has not been approached officially about providing service, she said, and even if they could, another consideration is that the line would have to come through Carderview Utility District or Dry Run, "and utility districts have the option of saying, 'No, you can't run a line.' "
   Dry Run operates as a distribution-only system, purchasing its water from Mountain City. Carderview has its own water but doesn't have enough to serve Fish Springs or Little Milligan, which means it would have to look at purchasing water from Mountain City, Irwin said.
   "Plus, they already have a loan in existence just to bring what they have up to state regulation standards. They've got two slow sand filters they've got to replace the media in and build covers over before they even talk about taking on something else," she said.
   Once the Tysinger & Hampton report is in hand, the next step is for a community representative to take it to commissioners of Hampton Utility District to determine whether they will go after grant money on behalf of the community. If Hampton cannot go for a grant, then residents have to look for another solution, Irwin said.
   Even if funding can be obtained, Irwin doesn't believe everyone will get water at once. "I'm afraid it will have to be a phased project because it's going to be cost-prohibitive," she said.
   Other potential options could be to develop a source around Elk Mills and then come from that direction toward Fish Springs; or residents possibly could put together their own utility district and develop a source. "But then again, when you don't have any money to start with -- two nickels to rub together, as Grandma used to say -- it makes it tough," Irwin said.
   Pulling water from an unlimited, reliable source such as Watauga Lake also has been discussed. "It's one of the highest quality lakes in the state," Irwin said. But the question remains: Which utility can afford to develop the water source and run lines to residents?
   One problem with relying on ground water, such as Mountain City has done by developing George Lowe Spring, is "You don't know when your source might dry up," Irwin said.