Walking the lines

City of Alcoa celebrates 50 years of providing water to community

When the City of Alcoa took over providing water service for the citizens and the aluminum company, city manager Ross Walker told then superintendent of water Don Bledsoe they would be laying waterlines for five years.

“Mr. Walker said we’re going to be laying waterlines for five years,” Bledsoe said. “We were still laying water lines when I retired, and they’re still laying them today.”

The city of Alcoa is celebrating the 50th anniversary of taking over the water service for the community. The celebration began on Tuesday, Jan. 12, with anther open house planned for 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at the Water Treatment Plant on Sam Houston School Road.

A history of water treatment in Alcoa is closely tied to the history of the aluminum company, explained Bledsoe, who retired from the plant after more than 30 years.

In 1914, the Aluminum Company of America began construction of a water system to serve employees and its plants. On Jan. 4, 1960, the City of Alcoa assumed responsibility for managing the water filter plant. Then, in 1962, the water filtration plant was rebuilt and capacity was increased to 8 million gallons a day.

In 1972, an additional treatment unit was added which increased capacity to 16 million gallons a day. In 1978, the final expansion at the water filtration plant was completed, pushing capacity to 24 million gallons a day with the potential for 36 million gallons a day.

In 2007, the new membrane water filtration plant was completed with a capacity for 16 million gallons a day and upgradeable to 24 million gallons a day.

Bledsoe lived a lot of the history of the plant. The 75-year-old retired from the City of Alcoa in 1990 after 33 years.

Bledsoe started out with the city as a police officer in 1957. In January of 1960 when the City took over the water system, Bledsoe was hired to work with the department as superintendent of water. Bledsoe said he did everything -- worked through the meter department, laid waterlines and fixed leaks. He charted all the waterlines and put them all on one map. “That helped me more than anything,” he said.

Bledsoe worked with the water department from 1960 until 1990. “I was superintendent of the Water Department until 1967, and then I went to work for the Aluminum Company,” he said.

Rather than quit, the city manager convinced Bledsoe to take a leave of absence and told him his job would be held for him for a year. In five months, Bledsoe was back with a promotion. “I came back as director of Public Works. That was in 1967,” he said.

Bledsoe said the water system has changed “big time” in 50 years.

“The water system was really in sad shape as far as the facilities,” he said of what it was like when the city took over. “It was an 8-million gallons a day plant. In 1972, they built a new plant and increased capacity to 16 million gallons a day. In 1978, we went to 24 million with the capabilities of changing the filters to boost it to 30 if they wanted to,” he said.

Ken Reynolds, Water Treatment Plant supervisor, said the city rehabilitated two of the four units at the water treatment plant. “In the old steel units, chemicals had eaten the steel. Engineers said it would just be better to build a new plant when we realized we were throwing good money after bad,” he said. “So we bit our lip and started over, but water treatment hadn’t changed in 100 years.”

Reynolds said the traditional way of treating water was filtering it through sand and then adding chlorine to kill any additional bacteria left. “Right when we were deciding which way to go, the cost was about even between chlorine or membrane,” he said.

They chose the membrane system. Reynolds said the membrane filtration method was the first big change in water treatment in 100 years.

“The membrane is just like a string of spaghetti with a hole in each end. You pour water through the holes in that fiber. The membrane is made out of poly vinyl plastic fiber. You pull or push water through the pores, and the pores are smaller than bacteria,” he said. “It’s like pushing a dirt clump the size of a quarter through a hole the size of a dime. You don’t get any bacteria through. With sand, you get bacteria through and killed it with chlorine.”

Reynolds said a lot of their decisions on the new plant were regulation-driven. “Tighter regulations from EPA makes you get ahead of it,” he said.

Bledsoe said a quality water system is vital to a community. “It’s very important. It will bring industry in and everything else. It’s one of the major things that is important to a growing community,” he said. “A water system is just like a tree. You have main trunk, and you have your branches. You always want it connected.”

Bledsoe said the need for more capacity in the system grew throughout the 1980s. “In the 1980s, once you got 70 or 75 percent of capacity, you submitted plans to increase capacity. In the 1980s we were pumping 16 million gallons a day,” he said.

“At one point we were pumping more water to the Aluminum Company than the city of Maryville was using,” Bledsoe said. “At one point we were the fifth largest producer of water in the state, mainly because of the plant and providing water to South Blount Utility. We also pumped to Tuckaleechee Utility in Townsend.”

It was during this time the aluminum company began recycling water at the plant. Then South Blount Utility came off the system and started pumping water from Tellico Lake, reducing the water consumption for the Alcoa system by two million gallons a day.

Bledsoe said those reductions meant that when they built the new plant, it could be designed for a smaller capacity. “The new plant is only rated for 16 million gallons,” he said.

Bledsoe said a main priority for the water filtration plant is ensuring there is water for the aluminum company plants. “You had to worry about shutting the aluminum company down. Years ago, we had a 20-inch line from the water treatment plant,” he said.

“We had to lay a new line surrounding the aluminum company, and if their line broke, they were shut down,” he said. “So we laid new lines, so that if we had one line break, it would back feed.”

Bledsoe said the most important water line in city was the 24-inch line from Jackson Hills. “It put water in the north area of Lakemont when all that was feeding that area before was a 20-inch line out of Alcoa,” he said. “It was upgraded to include that whole section north of the city. We didn’t have near as many leaks on the 20-inch line after we laid the 24 inch line.”

Bledsoe said maintaining the waterline from the reservoir to the North Plant was labor intensive then and is now. “We walked the water line from the water treatment facility to the reservoir all the way to the North Plant,” he said.

“Sometimes you would have a leak, and no one would know it,” said Reynolds.

Bledsoe workers would walk from the water treatment plant to Jackson Hills. “It’s at least three miles. If you found a wet spot, you could dig down, drive a lead joint in and put a bell joint clamp, and it would hold the lead in,” he said.

Reynolds said the reservoir was built in 1920 and overhauled in 1940. “We’ve got pipe in the ground that have been there 80 or 90 years. That is why we are going to have to start going in and replacing lines,” he said. “That’s the next big expense, upgrading lines that have been in the ground 80 or 90 years.”

Bledsoe had plenty of responsibility after becoming director of public works. “I carried a police and public works radio every day, 24 hours a day,” he said.

The longtime employee mentions with pride some of the people he hired who have gone on to positions of leadership in the city. “I hired Larry Garner, and he worked his way up to fire chief, and I hired Roger Robinson,” he said of the current fire chief. “I really enjoyed my career. The city was a good place to work. I was born and raised in Alcoa and knew everybody, which is an advantage and disadvantage. Lots of people think anytime they call, you can do it.”

Bledsoe said he enjoyed working and being around the people. “I was in so many different departments, and I knew them all. I had good relationships,” he said. “My motto was, I’m strict but I try to be fair. As long as you’re fair, you’re not going to have a problem. I think as much of the man picking up garbage as the foreman.”

Bledsoe and his wife, Helen Graves Bledsoe, have been together 53 years. Their son, Steve Bledsoe, is assistant principal at Alcoa Middle School. Their daughter, Ginger Aulton, works at Colonial Freight in Knoxville. The couple has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Bledsoe said he appreciates the city he has grown up in and served his whole life. “I don’t think you will find a place where the services are any better,” he said. “It’s a good neighborhood.”

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