Ice Storm Challenges Water and Wastewater Systems

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ashland, Missouri - February 6, 2009 - Many public water and wastewater systems from southwest Missouri to the eastern boot heel were brought to a halt as a result of the ice storm that blanketed the region during a 36 hour period.

Water and wastewater operators worked day and night that week to restore flows in their systems. In a few cases, system-owned backup generators were activated immediately. For the rest, generators had to be delivered and hooked up to their pumps from an outside source.

Missouri Rural Water Association (MRWA), a non-profit organization that provides technical assistance and other support to these systems, mobilized its staff in a coordinated method to visit affected systems.

Among other things, the MRWA offered contact information for securing generators, guidance regarding public notifications for issuing boil water advisories, and step-by-step practices for disinfecting water systems to counteract any contaminants that might have entered during this low pressure event.

In isolated instances, the MRWA representatives even coordinated the delivery of a backup generator, and temporarily oversaw the wastewater treatment facility during hospitalization of the system's operator.

Within two or three days, most systems in need of generators had already procured them. Some received these backup power units before their water storage tanks ran dry. Others depleted their water reserves before regaining temporary electrical power to their pumps.

Water and wastewater operators found creative ways to improvise during the disaster. Utilizing staff around the clock, water systems employed their operators to rotate limited generators between lift stations in order to keep household waste from backing up in the lines. In some cases, generators were rotated between drinking water and wastewater in an attempt to keep both flowing.

Problems arose, too. In one instance, a portable generator owned by a water utility was immobilized due to the storm and consequently inaccessible to the pumping station. In another case, the backup power supply functioned properly but didn't deliver the kilowatts necessary to pump the water. Other generators were over-sized for the load and burned up electrical components.

There was at least one instance in which the water supply had to sacrifice one of its borrowed generators for the local nursing home, which had no other power source.

Once activated, these miniature power supplies were used to restore power to well houses for pumping water, bring drinking water treatment plants back on line for iron removal or lime softening, recharge wastewater lift stations, and restart aerators and other processes at wastewater treatment facilities.

During the week following the disaster, water and wastewater operators continued their vigilance. Some towns remained without power, with the earliest prediction being an additional two weeks before electricity would be restored.

The electrical power grid, power plants and transmission lines were completely knocked out of power. Thousands of utility poles were destroyed, and power lines were down everywhere.

Most of the imported generators came from the State Emergency Management Agency. The National Guard helped maintain order in some communities, even imposing an early evening curfew in one or two towns. Union Electric and electrical utilities, including many from other states, swarmed the region to restore power and utility poles. City electrical workers from upstate and Arkansas helped restore power to locally operated power plants.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross and local relief groups provided food and beverages to the many people without power. Each town established a warming center where food was distributed and cots were provided.

Freezing rain and sleet began falling Monday, January 26, 2009. From that evening through early morning Wednesday, January 28, some form of freezing precipitation continued to fall continuously, including a covering of snow.

The largest region affected was southeast Missouri, extending from Cape Girardeau County to all counties south and west of this.

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