Filling a glass, cooking pasta, using ice in a smoothie or preparing a baby bottle… it’s hard to believe the clean, fresh water that comes from your tap actually started its journey as a drop of water in the Catawba River.
Hundreds of Charlotte Water employees are part of that journey, and during National Drinking Water Week, May 7-13, we celebrate and recognize the vital role water plays in our community.
This week, we meet just a few of those employees helping deliver water from the river to your tap.
It starts with filtering and disinfection at one of our three water treatment plants.
“Water is vital to life, and what we provide is pressure and purity. We’re vitally important and we take our responsibilities very seriously.”
Chief Water Treatment Plant Operator John McBride knows he has a serious job. He’s been with Charlotte Water for 24 years, including six years as the shift supervisor at the Franklin Water Treatment Plant. He briefly explained the treatment plant’s role in getting Charlotte’s water from the Catawba River to residents’ taps.
“It starts at the river station, where pumps take water out of Lake Norman or Mountain Island Lake and send the water to our three treatment plants. But every step is carefully monitored. The pumps only take in enough water to keep our reservoirs at a certain level,” he said.
The two reservoirs at the Franklin plant are huge – holding a total of 500 million gallons of water. Based on demand across the county, pumps pull water from the reservoirs and send it through a series of filters that clean and treat the water before it hits the distribution system.
There’s also another step Charlotte Water takes that means customers enjoy award-winning water – right out of the tap.
“We’ve won several contests for the best-tasting water in the state,” McBride said. “That’s probably because we add powdered activated carbon to the water as part of our process. That removes taste and odor and helps the water coming out at the other end of the process taste better. Many other utilities don’t want to spend the money, but Charlotte is committed to the best quality possible.”
Water Treatment Plant Operator Brandon Booker has been with Charlotte Water for three years, and says most people are surprised how little chemical intervention goes into the process.
“Source water is a big part of that,” he said. “We don’t just work on treating the water; we also work to manage our source water responsibly. In the long run, that’s safer and healthier. It’s much easier to keep the water clean from the beginning than to clean it up later.”
From the river to the pump stations, from the treatment plants to the pipe system, Charlotte Water is tested dozens of times to ensure it’s safe and healthy. Kendra Branch is just one of the white-coated laboratory analysts using high-tech equipment to conduct tests on the water.
Charlotte Water’s Laboratory Services Division is a full-service commercial and municipal environmental laboratory, conducting more than 250,000 analyses every year, including more than 150,000 drinking water tests – far exceeding the required number. Laboratory analysts test for more than 150 different substances.
Branch has worked for Charlotte Water for four years, starting as a water treatment plant operator before moving to the lab. “I live in Charlotte, I drink Charlotte Water, and I care. I see the lab reports and I run them myself, and I know the water is of good quality.”
Each drop of water goes through various steps to ensure it is safe, clean and ready to be transported via 4,200 miles of water pipes to homes, businesses, schools and more.
Tens of thousands of valves control the water flow throughout the system, and Crew Chief 2 Jimmy Sherman performs preventative maintenance, making sure those valves open and close properly.
“It’s important, because if there’s a construction project, water break, or a problem with a line, we want to turn the water off as close to the issue as possible,” Sherman said. “If we can’t get the valves to close, we have to go to the next valve, then the next, which means water outages in a larger area.”
He also works with Charlotte Water construction crews and contractors to turn water lines on and off. Most of the time, water outages are planned and customers are informed ahead of time. But that’s not always the case.
“Sometimes, in an emergency situation, we just have to shut it off immediately,” he said. “We know it’s an inconvenience, and when customers ask us what’s happening, we let them know and apologize. We know it’s important, and we’re always working to get the water back on as soon as possible.”
Sherman isn’t only a 15-year Charlotte Water employee; he’s also a customer.
“I live in Charlotte, and my job means a lot,” he said. “I take pride in what I do. If my hands are on it, I have to give 100 percent – no matter what.”
The drop can’t get to the tap without water service. Malina Barbee has walked hundreds – if not thousands – of miles in her 21 years with Charlotte Water. During her first decade she was a meter reader, walking from house to house, business to business, reading 350 to 400 meters each day.
When Charlotte Water switched to digital readers, Barbee took on a new job.
With digital meters, employees drive trucks along routes. Automated meter readers, or AMRs, read a signal from the meter that provides water-usage information. But sometimes field visits are necessary, for example, when the signal doesn’t work.
“We go out and check by hand,” Barbee said. “We investigate, we make sure the meter is working, we check for leaks or problems with the water system and if we find something, we call it in to be fixed.”
Barbee also handles water turn-ons and turn-offs, and while she only has a few more years before she retires, she’s enjoying every day at work.
“I really like a challenge and I like doing different things,” she said. “This works for me, because every day is so different.”
While Charlotte Water is a great deal at just three cents a gallon, there is a cost to the process from the river to the tap.
That’s what 36-year City of Charlotte employee Cassandra Smith handles as a senior customer service representative for Charlotte Water. She’s spent 18 years with the utility, including positions as an office administrator, courier and taking calls from customers and others. Her other 18 years were spent in city finance.
The combination of experience means she’s highly skilled for her current position, handling difficult billing situations from customers disputing high bills or asking for adjustments due to a water leak, to residents who didn’t follow through with payment arrangements.
Smith admits some of her customers can be challenging. “Sometimes they’re irate; they’ve spoken to several different people about their problem and no one has helped them. I let them know I’m here to solve their issue. It’s important to take the time to listen to our customers. It’s not always about getting it done as quickly as possible.”
Her team has to stay within certain parameters when dealing with billing, but they have some flexibility, and Smith’s favorite part of the job is when she can really help someone.
“I had an elderly woman to call who said she had some money, but she was trying to determine whether she was going to buy food, pay for her medications, or pay her water bill. I just said, ‘Ma’am, you let me know when you can pay your bill.’”
The next time you turn on your tap, remember that drop of water’s journey from the river to your glass, as well as the hardworking Charlotte Water employees along the way.