By Brad Hicks

A project that would bring clean and dependable drinking water to dozens of Unicoi County households is moving forward.

Erwin Utilities recently advertised that it is accepting bids for its Rocky Fork Waterline Extension project.

Matt Rice, Erwin Utilities director of water and wastewater, said the project, in part, calls for the installation a new 8-inch line from the point Erwin Utilities’ existing line stops near Clear Branch Road up to Rocky Fork Road along the Old Asheville Highway. Homes and businesses would then be “hooked up” to this line, allowing them to receive water from Erwin Utilities.

The other component of the undertaking calls for other homes to be hooked into what is referred to as the “Clear Branch line” – a waterline installed by the state as part of its construction of the Zane Whitson Welcome Center located along Interstate 26. Those households that qualified based on income will be connected to this line at no charge, extending Erwin Utilities water services to these homes.

“There’s about 93 customers that are either along the Welcome Center or along the Rocky Fork line that will have access to the water,” Rice said.

According to the bid solicitation, 15,000 linear feet of the 8-inch line and 3,000 linear feet of smaller diameter lines would be installed as a result of the project.

Although Rice said Rocky Fork Waterline Extension is technically one project, its two components are primarily being funded through two different sources. Erwin Utilities previously received $650,000 in grant funding from through the Appalachian Regional Commission to extend the waterline from its Clear Branch terminus to Rocky Fork Road.

In the latter part of 2016, the county received $525,000 through a Community Development Block Grant to connect some nearby homes into the existing Welcome Center waterline.

“When the state built that Welcome Center, they paid for the installation of a water main from our Temple Hill system all the way up to the Welcome Center, but they didn’t provide any funding for any assistance to customers to help the customers get connected to that Welcome Center line,” Rice said. “So with this Community Development Block Grant project, we’re able to hook customers up to the line along the Welcome Center in addition to the customers that are along the Rocky Fork waterline extension.”

Rice said different benefits of the project were emphasized in the grant applications submitted to the agencies providing funding. He said Erwin Utilities needed to highlight how the project would benefit the county from an economic development standpoint when seeking the ARC funding, and the county needed to express how the project would help low-to-moderate income residents in the project area in its pursuit of the CDBG money.

“It is all one project, so the contractor who’s bidding on the job, they’re just going to see it as all one project. It’s one scope of work,” Rice said, “but that’s how the money came together is ARC’s wanting the extension to the park and CDBG wants to serve people. So Erwin Utilities and some folks at the state and First Tennessee Development District, and the County Commission, the mayor’s office have all been kind of working together to try to blend those two funding sources to come up with enough money to do the project.” 

Nearly $194,000 in local funding will be put toward the project to provide grant matches. In early 2016, the Unicoi County Commission voted to commit $100,000 in county funding if the county was to receive the CDBG grant. Prior to that, Erwin Utilities and the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi agreed to contribute more than $93,000 to the waterline extension project.

Rice said the estimated cost of the overall project is $1.369 million.

Bids for the project will be accepted through Aug. 18. While Rice said officials do have an estimated completion timeframe in mind, the actual date for the start of construction is not yet known.

“It’s going to be about a nine-month construction period, but we won’t know the start date of construction until we figure out who the lowest responsive bidder is and work out a start date with them but, definitely, the project needs to be completed by end of the calendar year 2018,” Rice said.

Rice said the waterline extension project does not directly tie into the Tennessee Department of Transportation project that would see the widening of Rocky Fork Road leading into Rocky Fork State Park and the improvement of access in that area. However, Rice said Erwin Utilities will have to coordinate with TDOT to install the waterline up Rocky Fork Road once improvements to the road at the park begin.

“Right now, it’s not part of the scope of this project at all,” Rice said. “Because of the CDBG money, the focus was really along Asheville Highway where we could serve customers because there’s no additional customers that can be served up Rocky Fork Road.”

Rice said officials feel the project is much-needed, as it will benefit so many in an underserved area of the county.

“I think it’s going to be a really good thing,” Rice said. “We’ve had some droughts in the last few years, and there’s some homes through there that have springs that were going dry so they were kind of having a lack of water. Then there’s other houses that their wells and their springs tested positive for bacteriological contamination, so it’s going to be a really good thing that a lot of these customers will get hooked up to the water system at no charge to them and they will have a good, reliable, clean source of drinking water.”

Rice added residents who are not connected to the water mains through the project, particularly those who did not qualify based on income, will have access to water in the future should they need it.

And the project will also greatly benefit any businesses that may develop to support the traffic to Rocky Fork State Park as the infrastructure will be in place to provide water to these enterprises, Rice said.

“The fact that it will be there is a big thing,” Rice said of the waterline.