Flushed Away

Colorado sanitation district works to repair and replace thousands of feet of sewers after monster flood wreaks havoc.
Flushed Away
Upper Thompson Sanitation District staff includes, from left, Dustin Tedder and Ben Hardendorf, lines crew operators; Matt Allen, lines crew foreman; Chris Bieker, district manager; and Todd Krula, line superintendent, with a section of new temporary sewer line along Fish Creek in Estes Park.

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Mid-September usually finds relaxed tourists ambling through early fall sun in the Rocky Mountain Na-tional Park gateway town of Estes Park. They browse for food, souvenirs and sights. Elk coming down from the high country and wandering through the town often supply the latter.

But Sept. 12, 2013, found residents ducking inside to avoid the rain. September rainstorms — if they come at all — are usually 30-minute-to-an-hour affairs. About an inch and a half of precipitation is typical for a northern Colorado September.

A low pressure system stalled along the foothills and Front Range east of the Rockies in September 2013. The unusual weather system dumped 8 to 12 inches of rain in the area over the next three days — about a year’s supply of water.

Eighteen Colorado towns experienced flash floods. Roads and bridges washed out. Homes were destroyed. And people were stranded.

The floods wiped out sewers or water distribution systems in several Colorado towns, including Lyons, Longmont, Jamestown, Boulder, Evans and Estes Park.

The Estes Park population is about 5,850. The Estes Valley population is about 12,000. The Upper Thompson Sanitation District — one of two in the area — serves 4,000 accounts, or about 9,000 people.

Concerns About The System

As the rain continued to fall, Upper Thompson Sanitation District Manager Chris Bieker became increasingly concerned.

“I called the plant,” says the 26-year district employee. “The chief operator was already there and was diverting flow into an empty 250,000-gallon clarifier. We always get bad I&I when it rains.”

Bar screens were blinded as the rain continued into the evening. Bieker’s concerns about the collection system grew. He called his lines superintendent, Todd Krula.

“Todd and I went out and started checking the collection system,” he says. “We mobilized the lines crew the night of Sept. 12.”

The district has more than 85 miles of collection system and interceptor sewers. They carry the flow by gravity to two lift stations. Their combined pumping capacity of 9.72 mgd pumps the flow to the plant.

“The rain got worse the next morning. The collection system washed out,” he says.

By Sept. 13, Bieker had issued a statement telling customers that heavy flows of silt and debris had made the Fish Creek and Thompson River lift stations and treatment plant inoperable.

“Preliminary observation shows thousands of feet of pipe and manholes located along the Fish Creek Road area either damaged or missing. There is also evidence that the District’s Big Thompson River and Fall River collection systems north and west of the treatment plant has suffered damage,” Bieker’s statement said.

Portable Toilets Ordered

Thousands of people were without service. The district issued a “No Flush” order and set to work getting portable toilets into key areas.

“The main areas were in the Fish Creek and the Fall River corridors,” Bieker says.

The floods caused a shortage of portable toilets in Colorado. “Lyons, Sterling and Evans needed them, too, and the company that supplied them to us had to ship ours in from Arizona,” he says.

Managing portable toilets presented problems of a sort not normally faced by a sanitation district.

“It’s costing us between $45,000 and $50,000 a month for portable toilet rental,” Bieker says.

Distributing the toilets was a challenge, too. Everyone wanted their own toilet, but there just weren’t enough to go around. Several toilets would often be located together in a neighborhood, but some people rented their own.

“We also realized we had to schedule pumping. It was not something we were expecting to have to do,” Bieker says.

Another problem was the wind. “It blows hard in Estes Park. It blew over a lot of the portable toilets,” Bieker says. As a result, the toilets had to be tied down, but it didn’t solve all the problems. “Nobody wanted to use those that had been blown over. It was a public relations nightmare.”

Communication Woes

Which brings up communication. Bieker and other staffers had attended a presentation about communication in response to an emergency at the annual joint conference of the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association and the Rocky Mountain Section of AWWA just a few days before the floods hit.

“I brought all the materials back to review,” Bieker says. “Then this happened. At least we had some notion of what to do.”

The district put information out to its customers and the media using flyers and its website to keep them up to date. Bieker also spoke at town meetings hosted by the town of Estes Park.

“I’m no public speaker, but it got easier over time,” he says. “Everyone wanted to hear from the sewer guy.”

Recovery Effort

Recovery is divided into two main parts: temporary service restoration and permanent system repairs. The district is well on its way to getting all of its affected customers reconnected, with about 75 percent of affected customers reconnected by early November.

One of the toughest obstacles was a shortage of construction materials, including fill. It just wasn’t available.

Another was a severe shortage of qualified construction firms. The district eventually was able to hire Western Summit to work on the temporary repairs.

The final obstacle was the inexorable march of time: The coming of winter and the snow.

“The worst part about this whole thing has been keeping up with all the demands,” Bieker says. “It’s been a challenge keeping our customers updated, and we continue to make point repairs where we can.

“We’ve had to react with a staff of just 15. From day one, the number one concern has been the sewers. We still can’t get to some of the breaks, but we’re making progress.”

Going Forward

The need to stay ahead of the cold and snow has caused the district to move forward quickly. It has already purchased some 10,000 feet of 12-inch PVC and 5,500 feet of 8-inch PVC.

Bieker said one of the best things the district ever did was invest in a geographic information system in 2008.

“It’s great. We’d have been in such bad shape without it,” he says. GIS has enabled them to do quick, accurate planning. “From a management standpoint, every utility should invest in GIS.”

The district began hydraulic modeling in 2012. Because of it, they know key pieces of information such as peak flows and volumes.

“Between our hydraulic modeling and our GIS, we know how our lines work,” Bieker says. “We can predict the effects of proposed changes without having to guess.”

To illustrate the point, he de-scribed making a connection from one drainage to another using modeling data rather than guessing. “It’s quicker and more accurate.”

Redundancy A Must

Another “must have” is redundancy. At times, especially early in the emergency, there were no phones — neither cell nor landline. The server went down, as did computers, email and Internet service.

“Trying to do business between here and Denver was hard,” Bieker says.

Power also went out periodically — but not for too long at any one time — and the printer/copier broke down, adding to the public relations nightmare, Bieker says.

“You need redundancy. It might cost a little more to have it, but it’s absolutely essential. It about gives you a nervous breakdown when you can’t get the simple things done,” he says.

Different Approaches Examined

When Bieker and the district’s engineer, Hatch Mott McDonald, began working on what to do about their collections system problem, they started by looking at portable treatment units and their availability. Portable units were very expensive, were not available for 12 weeks and the district would have had to buy them.

“Then I’d be stuck with them,” Bieker says.

They also explored siting vaults at the bottom of sewer drainages, collecting sewage there and trucking it to the plant for treatment. That idea proved impractical as well, so they got busy figuring out how to build temporary sewers that in some cases, such as along Fall River Road, may be later converted to permanent sewers.

Part of the district’s answer in-volved correspondence with regulators. David Kurz of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment “has been really cooperative and understanding of our situation,” Bieker says.

The Corps of Engineers has also been helpful, but permitting can be a nightmare when sewer alignments cross multiple jurisdictions because the river or creek carved its own path without regard to land ownership or city, county or federal jurisdiction.

One huge boost has been the help the district has gotten from other wastewater entities under CoWARN, Colorado’s statewide Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN).

“We got help from a number of utilities, including a 4-inch pump with floats and a hose from Littleton/Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant,” Bieker says. That pump allowed them to get three schools and the emergency evacuation center reconnected quickly.

They received assistance from Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Fort Lupton, Platte Canyon, Estes Park Sanitation and others, too.

High Repair Costs

Notwithstanding all the help, the cost of repairs will be a burden on ratepayers. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) will reimburse them for up to 75 percent of emergency repair costs under ideal conditions, and the state will pick up another 12.5 percent, Bieker says. But they haven’t seen any FEMA money yet.

That leaves the district with at least a $1.6 million repair bill it was not anticipating. That expenditure will affect other needs in the future, but the support from the community “has been great,” Bieker says.

“The community understands the magnitude of the problem,” he adds, noting that the Lions Club furnished staff meals on several evenings and was helping canvas neighborhoods to distribute “You Can Flush Now” flyers. The Estes Park Rotary Club also provided assistance with notification. “Many of our customers have also volunteered their time on behalf of the district, making mobile flush signs and alerting residents, getting the word out they can now flush,” he says.

To make life even more complicated for Bieker personally, he had ankle replacement surgery in mid-October. He’s been hobbling around with a walker and a wheel chair, and couldn’t drive for several weeks.

The future looks busy for Upper Thompson Sanitation District. Bieker praised the district’s board and its employees, who have been putting in 18-hour days, with some even sleeping there. And they’re 13 days ahead of schedule overall.

“We have a tightly knit family and group here,” he says. “We get the job done.”

More Information

Western Summit - 303/298-9500 - www.westernsummit.com


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