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Leaders, Legends and Legacies: Water in Greenwood

Leaders, Legends and Legacies: Water in Greenwood.

Building a town, building a home, building a family or building a future requires looking forward. Way forward. In this world of pollution, global warming, hazardous waste, resource depletion and exponential population growth, it is not too difficult to imagine that water is the next gold. Eventually, science will devise an economically feasible method for desalinating sea water in large quantities and solve the problem of rising seas and depleting fresh water supplies, but until then…water is quick becoming the most cherished commodity for building wholesome communities. CONTROL THE WATER AND YOU WILL CONTROL EVERYTHING AROUND YOU. But, I’ll come back to that at the end of all this and see if you can guess where we’re going.

“Even the Godless Indians running across the dadblamed prairies barefooted knew that you build your settlements near a dependable source of good, clean water. Why don’t the leaders of this community understand that?”– a ninety-nine-year-old Greenwood resident/World War I veteran to a Greenwood mayoral candidate in 2006.

Greenwood’s water issues have been a political minefield for mayors and councilmen, developers and community leaders since the 1940’s. Lots of attempts to resolve the issue of supply and quality were attempted. Most failed. Some were expensive disasters. Some were the “political blowhard” promises to the voters and most of the mayors from 1976 to 2006 lost their jobs for not successfully addressing the water source and quality issues. In a fit of political desperation, one previous mayor extended an “emergency tie-on” to a regional water supplier without the City Council’s knowledge and without Council’s approval of the expenditure. It didn’t resolve the issues, neither water nor political.

(It should be noted that Greenwood is not the only community to suffer from years of shortsightedness as to water supply. Through the years, it would come to light that a nearby town had for thirty-plus years used an “emergency/temporary” line run by the U.S. Army. The line ran through a swamp and if it leaked, no one knew it, nor could have known. And, when one other town’s water treatment system failed. There was no money for repairs and that city bought water from a neighboring community and dumped the treated water into its system for distribution to its citizens! Illegal at best, no mention was made as to whether the Arkansas Department of Health knew about the procedure.)

Along the way, some talent emerged to advise, investigate and encourage leaders on the subject.  One such talented mind has been Dr. Thomas R. Cuthbert, a professional engineer, author, lecturer, computer technology magician and man of science who would come to play a leading role in resolving Greenwood’s longstanding embarrassment. Cuthbert attended City Council meetings for a decade and accepted roles on committees and attended meetings with civil engineers, planners and scientists for years on behalf of his adopted community.

“Greenwood’s great, but don’t drink the water!”a fifty-year catch phrase used by Greenwood’s critics, including area realtors showing homes to potential home buyers. Our community had a black eye as well as a threat to future development. For a town whose economy is driven by residential construction and school growth, that attitude has ominous potential.

To prepare for the future, one needs to know where they are, where they’ve been and how they got there.  Dr. Cuthbert prepared a video/slide presentation for the Sebastian County Historical Society on the history of Greenwood’s water issues and suggestions for how to preserve the data for future access. Some of the data and photos used in this article are from that presentation.

Facts From the “Cuthbert Presentation” March 16, 2006

Greenwood’s first water system involved the impounding of Vache Grasse Creek in 1937. The result was a 24-square mile watershed draining into the shallow reservoir. (Recently, engineers suggest that a depth of some seventy feet is necessary for producing good water) Greenwood’s reservoir was not then and still is not more than a fraction of that depth. (Average depth of Greenwood’s lake is estimated by some as being 7 feet and silting fast.)

In the 1940 census, Greenwood had a population of 1219. It increased at a rate of about 1% per year to 1558 in the 1960 census. The City served 396 water meters. The per person water consumption was 120 gallons per person per day in 1940 and reached 180 per person per day in 2009 when the number of water meters exceeded 3200 and the total gallons per day averaged 800,000. In 2009, the Greenwood reservoir could supply 800,000 gallons of water per day, but was losing 1% of its capacity per year due to the buildup of silt flowing into the lake.

In 1967, the South Sebastian County Water Users Association (now James Fork Regional Water District) was established and constructed a lake in 1980. It sent quality water throughout southern Sebastian County. Greenwood had representation on the board and yet it was more than twenty years before Greenwood even tried to tie on to the system and arguably illegally even then.

Water Shortages

In addition to rapid development in the area, weather has, of course, been a factor in water supply and quality. Greenwood’s reservoir very nearly dried up in January 2006, an extraordinary circumstance in the middle of winter. Yet, throughout the usually dry month of August in 2007, water was running over the dam, equally as rare. Flood waters carry lots of mud and that water is near impossible to treat.

Critics point to run-off from cattle and poultry operations in the 24-square mile watershed as a leading contributing factor in Greenwood’s water quality. Experts take a range of views as to whether that is really a threat. The reservoir depth is such that any contamination is near impossible to settle out in a shallow reservoir.

Throughout the 1990’s it was not unusual for the City of Greenwood to impose water usage restrictions on residents, especially in the drier summer months when demand is high and supply is limited. Even/Odd rationing schemes were used (to-wit: if your address is an odd number, no watering of lawns, filling of pools, etc., on even-number days on the calendar. Impossible to enforce, infuriating to the public. Not good publicity for anyone trying to sell real estate in Greenwood. Such measures as a moratorium on swimming pool construction was resorted to. At first, crowds would show up for City Council meetings making demands that something be done. The public grew accustomed to the  embarrassing problem and took its frustration out on a series of mayors.

Novel Ideas

Much political hay was made at the turn of the last century over the idea of mine water. Greenwood is literally situated above a honeycomb labyrinth of coal mine shafts. Untold millions of gallons of water fill the murky shafts of those long-abandoned mines.

Such arguments as: “Whiskey and cigarettes are charcoal filtered, what would be the problem in drilling into those mine shafts and using that coal-filtered water.” Many pointed out that “coal filtered” and “charcoal filtered” are quite different. Scientists and engineers lined up on both sides of the “mine water” issue. The public lined up on only one side. Mine water might well have been good water, but it was bad politics. Too many area families remembered the health threats attendant with coal mining. Some got colorful in telling what all was down in those mines. Some got ridiculous. Some disclosed violations of the law, even admitted to them! Common sense would dictate that water in coal mines is a constant running stream. Studies even proved such, but there was no dissuading skeptics from bewailing the fears of what all was “down there” in those mines. It was even the subject of at least one doctoral dissertation that was used by advocates as gospel that we were riding an endless tide of water just beneath our feet, beneath our homes…and it’s all there “free” for the taking. Common sense would also mandate that water in that abundance cannot be ignored forever. Some practical-perhaps industrial-use will one day be made of that water.

Expensive studies were done and proposals studied for running lines from the “coal mine wells” to Greenwood’s water treatment plant.

Plant Renovation and the Politics of Water

Greenwood’s water treatment plant was forty years old when the determination was made that renovations and upgrades were necessary, that the threat of being without water far exceeded the burden of crushing debt. The financial recourses of the city were not equal to any portion of the amounts needed to repair or replace the system. City government had not increased water rates in some twenty years citing bad water as the reason. It was considered dangerously bad politics to increase water rates for water that looked brownish, smelled funny, tasted even funnier and was in very short supply.

Several attempts were made to reach out to experts, engineers who might advise the city on the plight that existed, the threat that loomed and the harsh realities of water shortages. One such bright mind was Dr. Tom Cuthbert as well as experts in drilling like Robert Miller who had built a considerable career and business in the petroleum drilling industry. Engineers were engaged to assess a potential tie-on to other sources, tapping coal mines, enlarging the reservoir, adding height to the dam and constructing a new one of each. Every valley with a creek in it, and some without a creek, became someone’s idea for a new lake.

One complicating factor was that no one stayed in office long enough to see their ideas come to fruition and each succeeding mayor had their own engineer of choice. Hawkins-Weir Engineers made the first study of a tie on to James Fork and a tie on to Fort Smith water as early as 1986. Local bemoaned “what if they get mad at us and cut off our water?”

During this time, the City of Fort Smith was wrestling with the options of impounding Lee’s Creek and expanding/raising the dam at Lake Fort Smith to resolve their own plight. Fierce opposition to both ended with raising the height of the dam so as to combine two mountain lakes, thereby doubling the size of Lake Fort Smith, moving a state park, at least two cemeteries and a dozen or more homes. All the while, Greenwood’s chosen option was to borrow millions of dollars to renovate a water treatment plant and increasing its capacity to produce up to 2 million gallons of water per day. Cuthbert and others determined that the reservoir would only yield 800,000 gallons per day. Just from whence and where that extra water was to come remains an unanswered question. The matter saddled the City of Greenwood with heavy debt and no more water than it had previously.

In 2006, with water levels dropping, debt mounting, a mayoral election looming, and the plant renovations incomplete, the worst happened. The sitting mayor tried to force the completion ahead and herald the good news that Greenwood’s water problems were solved. Squabbling between water department staff, engineers and contractors ground work on the plant to a stop. Arrests were threatened as city water staff and engineers disagreed over production levels. In fact, the contractor whose company was renovating the plant walked off the job. A hot, dry summer forecast, firefighting capabilities diminished, and the obvious conclusion that the millions of dollars spent would not fix Greenwood’s water shortage led the City Council to vote for a change in the form of city government. They would change governments, hire a manager, remove the mayor from office and thereby remove the specter of mayoral politics from the water issue equation. A mayoral candidate campaigned against the measure. It failed. He won.

2007 Began a New Era in Water for Greenwood

The 2006 election brought a new mayor and four new faces to the Greenwood City Council. Water was the number one issue. Immediately, water and wastewater departments were combined under the direction of Greg Cross, former waste water director. Mach Cochran who, for years, had made all the water possible, under the worst of circumstances was moved to where his talents and credentials could do the most good for the city. He became the City Building Inspector with more licensure than had ever been seen in that office.

Greg Cross had successfully run the waste water operation for the city for some years by that time. One story that became legend was, in fact, true. The Arkansas Department of Health monitors all municipal water and waste water treatment facilities in the state. They take routine samples above and below discharge points to determine what is being discharged into Arkansas streams. The treated wastewater in Greenwood is discharged into the Vache Grasse Creek near downtown. Back upstream, the Vache Grasse is impounded to create our reservoir.

On a warm Spring day in 2007, the Health Department called to say they thought samples had been accidentally switched or miss-labeled. They had not. The fact was that the water being discharged from the wastewater treatment plant proved to be a high quality of water than that which was flowing over the dam at the reservoir serving as our source of drinking water. Greg Cross was obviously the man for the job!

The departments were merged, the contractor returned to the job site, the plant was completed and still the shallow reservoir could only give up so much water in any given day.

In 2007, the City Council voted to raise water and sewer rates to fund improvements and testing as well as to complete the renovation. There were days when the plant worked out of only habit until both sides of it could be completed.

“We are just one sheared pin away from being out of the water making business”– Greenwood Water/Wastewater Director Greg Cross about the conditions at the decrepit water plant during renovation in 2007.  

Politically, water was a “catch 22”. How do you raise water rates on bad water? How do you provide more water and better water without increasing rates? How do you tie on to bigger and better sources of water when you are so far in debt on the inadequate system in place?

In the summer of 2008, the city needed advice on making and storing water. The mayor and council reached out to the community for help with the dilemma of how much to make, how much to store and of what quality.  Water Distribution Department Director Tim Posey was busy replacing old failing water lines and trying to keep tanks full under the worst of circumstances. “Finished” water ready for distribution goes bad in storage tanks, yet lower supply is dangerous from a firefighting perspective and summer demands are always high.

The City Council approved the mayor’s initiative to enlist advice and support from experts both technological and political and formed a Water/Wastewater Committee that included Dr. Tom Cuthbert, John Bailey, Roy Moss, former City Councilman Daniel McDaniel, Planning Commissioner Steve Ratteree, City Councilman Lance Terry and City Councilman Rod Powell, Water/Wastewater Director Greg Cross and Water Distribution Director Tim Posey. Joining in the discussions were State Representative Steve Breedlove of Greenwood and Greenwood resident Randy Coleman, a partner in Mickle-Wagner-Coleman Engineers who did a great deal of work for the City and provided valuable insight.

Cuthbert’s calculations even extended to timing the life of the reservoir due to silt, calculating the flows in times of flooding and the duration of time after flooding conditions when the lake could be relied upon for supplying water that could be successfully treated by the plant. Flood waters are too muddy to be treated successfully and economically.

It became apparent that the City of Greenwood needed to tie on to either the James Fork Regional Water District’s system or buy water and extend lines to connect to the City of Fort Smith having just completed the Lake Fort Smith expansion project and needing to sell water to increase revenues. But how to afford such a tie-on? One idea proffered was to run a line across Chaffee. Lavaca, Barling, Central City, Lavaca, Charleston and points beyond gained access to the Fort Smith system via “Shovel-ready” projects receiving “Stimulus Package Money” through the federal government and largely due to the work of State Representative Steve Breedlove. Breedlove went to Governor Mike Beebe for matching funds from the State. Those communities have water today thanks to Breedlove’s efforts.

The crux of the matter for Greenwood’s committee would become the expense of running the lines to tie on and how to afford it given the heavy debt encumbering the city over the plant renovations.

Cuthbert and McDaniel Negotiate Water Deal

Greenwood had two influential members on the Board of Directors of the James Fork Regional Water District-Dr. James Burgess and Stanhope Wilkinson who could be counted upon for support of needs and ideas. Mayor Ken Edwards appointed Cuthbert and McDaniel to make entreaty to the James Fork system. They negotiated a contract with the James Fork Regional Water District for extension of the lines and in 2009, the contract was signed thus ending Greenwood’s sixty-year water source and quality problems and not adding substantial debt to the city. The ceremony at City Hall included members of the committee, the City Council and community leaders with special thanks to Cuthbert and McDaniel.

Today, James Fork provides as much as half of the water needed for Greenwood. During the best of conditions, our reservoir is used as a source and Director Greg Cross has become known statewide for his work in rural water production and his service to the state organizations relied upon to provide rural water.

In 2011, the water committee became a Water/Wastewater Commission by the City Council to further insulate water issues from the political whims and pressures of the mayor’s office.

Dr. Thomas R. Cuthbert

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Cuthbert grew up in Chattanooga building radios-flying airplanes from age 16. He graduated high school in 1946, entered M.I.T. and was President of the Flying Club there in 1948. He volunteered for the U.S. Navy Pilot Training program in 1950, becoming an officer and spent seven years in active duty flying all kinds of airplanes, airships and free balloons as well as teaching electronics and airship construction to Navy Pilots.

Cuthbert received his BSEE from Georgia Tech completing with highest honors. A career in radio/electronics with Collins Radio took him to Texas. He received an MSEE and Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University. Rockwell International bought Collins in 1971 and Cuthbert moved to Texas Instruments in 1972 where he worked on aircraft terrain-following radar circuits before returning to Rockwell Collins in 1974. He was a Senior Engineer and later the Director of Advanced Technology in the Microwave Division.

Strongly urging engineers to buy and to use computers and to create programs for the collection of their own work, Cuthbert’s advice allowed engineers to retain the tools of their trade when switching jobs.

Cuthbert retired from Rockwell Collins in 1987 and worked for E-Systems in Dallas before returning to Texas Instruments to work on gallium arsenide circuits in the S and X frequency bands. His expertise has focused on mostly passive circuit design, especially broadband impedance matching.

Dr. Cuthbert is the author of numerous papers and articles in trade journals. He has published two 500 page books: Circuit Design Using Personal Computers and Optimization Using Personal Computers as well as a third book in 1999: Broadband Direct-Coupled and Matching RF Networks. He has taught  graduate-level courses at SMU and seminars in the United States, Canada, the UK, Switzerland and France.

Dr. Cuthbert and his wife, the former Ernestine Strang moved to Greenwood in 1995 and in retirement are active members of the community and their church. He is an avid bass fisherman. He retired from piloting planes and sold his twin engine plane to friends who still fly through and stop in Greenwood for annual visits.

The Cuthbert’s make annual visits to vacation properties in Key West, Florida each spring and fall and Dr. Cuthbert is still called upon for advice to Greenwood’s Water/Wastewater Commission.

Read more about this outstanding citizen, his amazing career and his contributions to improving Greenwood’s water quality and quantity at

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