English Mountain is a community nestled in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, tucked behind popular tourist destinations like Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. For years now, the area has suffered from miserable utility management that caused them to regularly be without clean drinking water for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. At the start of this year, I wrote about their struggle against the corrupt board of directors at the East Sevier County Utility District (ESCUD) and the mounting fear that they would eventually have to leave their homes. Every resident I spoke with—some who had been there for decades—felt that they were running out of options.
ESCUD and Alliance Water Management had neglected and abused the people of English Mountain for too long. Directors would ignore calls, offer poor band-aid solutions (like offering people a far away spigot to fill jugs), and even tease them that no one would do anything to help them. Cindy Mitchell, a resident of English Mountain for fourteen years, remarks that under Alliance, residents “witnessed few, if any improvements to the infrastructure that was put in place in the 1970s,” and “it was commonplace for leaks to be simply ‘patched’ if they were repaired at all.”
When they had any to begin with, the water ran brown, rusted, and full of silt. As recently as this past Christmas, residents were left without water while their utility management was away for the holiday. Calls went unanswered as residents canceled family visits. Mitchell adds that prior to living on the mountain, her family “previously owned a home in a third world country where [they] had better quality and more consistent water than [they’ve] experienced here in the state of Tennessee for the past fourteen years.”
In an inspiring turn of events, the people of English Mountain have now not gone a day without water since March 1st of this year. Ben Harris, the Director of Witt Utility who had been attempting to get around the neglectful ESCUD and Alliance Water Management for many months, has finally been given the opportunity to put his plan into action.
Now, teams work daily to repair leaks and lay new pipe throughout the mountain. Mitchell was happy to share that “Water leaks are now an infrequent occurrence and are typically repaired within 24 hours.” She attributes the improvements to the efforts of the Tennessee Department of Conservation, Senator Steve Southerland, Senator Frank Niceley, the Utility Management Review Board, and Witt Utility, who all were outspoken about the issues in the area and supportive of utilizing the real solutions available—namely putting Ben Harris in charge.
Harris had developed a plan to bring clean water to English Mountain over a year ago, and in the intervening months, had been all but begging for the funding or permission to go through with it. In part due to increasing public pressure, the entire Board of Directors at ESCUD has now been terminated and Harris is where he should be: in charge. “I finally got control of it the first of March,” says Harris. “They haven’t gone a day without water since.” Water flow for English Mountain residents has now tripled, with lost water reduced by 80 percent. For the first time in several years, one hundred percent of the mountain has had water for over one hundred days.
Of course, the process of fixing the water pipes hasn’t been easy. “If I could say it was a shitshow, it was a shitshow,” Harris laughs. Where other plans estimated the cost of laying new pipe at $750 thousand, he only has $185 thousand—using only the funds from English Mountain utility bills. Larger utility companies like Pigeon Forge and Sevier County had previously promised to pitch in some help, but they have yet to follow through.
This has meant that for a time, Witt Utility was struggling to make payroll. “We barely had enough money to buy chlorine to disinfect the water,” explains Harris. Request for grants from the Comptroller’s Office of Tennessee have fallen on deaf ears, but Harris pledges his commitment to trudging forward. “Penny by penny we’re getting it so the water’s filtered,” he states. “I’ve got a crew up there right now.”
HOPE GOING FORWARD
With the highly capable and focused Ben Harris at the helm for English Mountain’s water supply, things will continue to improve. Harris has been their greatest advocate and boots on the ground for a while, drawing up maps and laboring even before being given official control. Last year in January, Harris and his team spent all night installing a generator in the snow to bring power to English Mountain in a blackout. When Alliance Water Management refused to maintain it—by monitoring oil, filling it with diesel, and generally checking on it—his team was forced to collect it and haul it back down the mountain.
Harris’ commitment to finding and implementing solutions for English Mountain is a testament to his steadfast and grounded nature. He presented his plans and budget to the local mayor, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) in both Knoxville and Nashville, on the Senate floor, and even to Governor Bill Lee. But it took public pressure from residents to push the proposal across the finish line.
Despite lacking all the necessary funding, Harris continues to build infrastructure where it was once crumbling, and as a result, the thousands of people who should have had clean water all along are now, finally, beginning to get it. Things are improving and will continue to do so with or without support as quickly as possible. Whether or not the promises of collaboration with larger utilities, funding, and outside support are fulfilled, the situation on English Mountain is in good hands.