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'I just like public service,' water director says of his career

City Manager John Connet congratulates water and sewer director Lee Smith on his retirement after the City Council honored him with a resolution and a rocking chair.

Hendersonville City Council members lifted water bottles and took a sip last week in a toast to the city water system’s 100th anniversary, saluting the reliable delivery of drinking water from a pristine source in a serene forest.

 “On July 26, 2023, at 5:30 p.m., a valve was opened, and the water rushed by gravity from the new intake dam over 16 miles away to fill the distribution reservoir like a fountain,” the city’s new utilities director, Adam Steuer, wrote in a history of the water system. “North Carolina Gov. Cameron Morrison was in attendance to celebrate the great new water system, which delivered water that was described to have unsurpassed purity of anywhere in America to the citizens of Hendersonville.”

The ceremonial turn of a valve might more accurately be described as the birth of the modern water system. The city had been supplying drinking water to its citizens since the late 1800s from a reservoir in Laurel Park. When that small containment became inadequate, the city embarked, in 1916, on a search for new source. Interrupted by World War I, the choice became official in 1921 when the newly formed Board of Water Commissioners reaffirmed the previous selection of “Pisgah Mountain water.”

‘I just like public service’

Four weeks before they toasted the centennial, City Council members honored Lee Smith for his 18 years of managing the Hendersonville’s utilities systems. A resolution noted that under Smith’s leadership, the water system grew from 22,000 to 31,000 customers and the sewer system increased from 6,800 to more than 10,000 users while the utilities department increased its workforce by 30 people and grew its annual budget by $10 million, to $24.2 million. Among notable improvements completed under his leadership, which ended with his retirement on Monday, were a major water treatment plant renovation, an advanced metering system, a French Broad River water intake, Etowah and Fletcher area water improvements, sewer treatment facility equipment replacements and upgrades and Jackson Park sewer interceptor.
Smith has guided city and county public water systems throughout his 30-year career.
“I’ve never had a desire to make a lot of money for somebody else,” he said. “I just like public service. My grandfather (Henry Wood) was the state Commissioner for the Blind for probably 20 years. So I guess it’s in my blood.”

Source is a ‘protected watershed’


A native of Raleigh, Smith, 64, earned a degree in biology from Appalachian State University. He and his employees have worked to maintain the quality of a system that’s won state and national accolades for the taste and quality of the drinking water it delivers.
The 75,000 people who consume it have the good fortune of a pristine water source. Smith recalled how he came across an article years ago in the American Waterworks Association magazine describing the city’s water supply at the headwaters of the North Mills River in Pisgah National Forest.
“It described the purity of the water, even back in 1931, when the article was written,” he said. “When you think about it, it’s a protected watershed that has no development. You’ve got federal employees guarding the watershed essentially — the rangers. You don’t have any synthetic chemicals getting into the water. The groundwater recharges into the rivers and streams. They’re picking up all these minerals, trace elements, and most of them are good for you.”
There’s no doubt that conflict arises from time to time over the governance of the water-sewer system. Henderson County commissioners make no secret of their desire to exert more influence over water and sewer extension decisions because those decisions drive growth.
“I keep my head down and keep moving forward,” Smith said. “I don’t have anything to do with that. Until they tell me different, we’re just doing our job. So we try not to worry about those kinds of things.”
Commissioners also criticize the city’s policy requiring annexation for new sewer users, a policy Smith defends.
“I think it’s good for the city, for any city,” he said. “If you look at cities that don’t annex, they die. And you have all these small communities that pop up around them, and you’ve got duplication of services, and most times it’s more expensive because the larger city can provide it at a better cost. They’ve already got the infrastructure.”
As for the county’s proposed wastewater treatment plant on Clear Creek in Fruitland, Smith regards that as unnecessary, even contrary to a pact adopted by the city and county in 2000 known as the Mud Creek agreement.
“If they build it, they can keep it, they can give it us, but we treat” the wastewater it collects, he said. “But they’re not doing that. I don’t know why they would build a plant just upstream of our plant. To me, from an operations standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense. … It’s a duplication of something that’s already there. I don’t know why the state would permit it. But they might.”


‘I’ve had a great 18 years’

Smith praises the elected leaders and managers he’s worked for, and says he’ll especially miss the team of engineers, construction workers and lab specialists responsible for producing high-quality tap water.
“I can’t say enough about the people that work for our department and support us with the city,” he said. “They are just absolutely incredible.”
And even though he “won’t miss the people that speak incorrectly about what we’re doing,” he’s enjoyed interacting with the elected board.
I’ve had a great 18½ years with council, with management, with everything,” he said. “As much as I hate going to meetings, I’m going to miss going to council meetings. You can have 10, 20, 30 negative comments from the public and then you’ll get that one that just absolutely makes your day. They really appreciate what you’re doing and they understand what you’re doing and what you’re up against, and it just makes it worthwhile.”