Essential Service Providers

System operators take on the role of frontline defenders of community health and safety.

When we profiled the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta, Canada, in the June 2015 issue of MSW, we had no way of knowing it would essentially burn to the ground less than a year later.

Fort McMurray, Alberta, is the urban center of RMWB, and as I write this column in mid-May, it’s in flames. The hub of the Canadian oilsands has been wiped out. The whole city has been evacuated. The population has been reduced almost exclusively to firefighters and police. And the water system operators.

According to local news reports, nine members of the water system crew stayed behind when everyone else was evacuated. They too were evacuated for a short time when flames surrounded the water treatment plant, but they returned hours later, determined to do whatever they could to keep the water flowing for firefighters. They wore dust masks and went about their business, according to a CBC News report, as fire ripped through trees 50 feet from the plant, which was filled with thick smoke.

Water is an essential service, and the team in Fort McMurray takes it to heart, but it’s not the only utility crew that has put the health and safety of its community above all else.

The City of Napa (California) Water Division has dealt with Mother Nature’s devastating blows, too. The utility, profiled in this issue of MSW, was hit hard when the magnitude 6.0 South Napa earthquake struck on a Sunday morning in August 2014.  

The epicenter of the quake was in a canyon outside town, but of the local communities, Napa was hit hardest. Streets opened up. Pipes ruptured. Within just a few hours, well over a hundred leaks were reported. To avoid water contamination, the treatment plants were ramped up from 18 to 32 mgd to feed the leaks and maintain positive pressure.

By Monday morning, crews from the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network and other mutual aid utilities were arriving to help. Even as leaks were being fixed, new leaks began to surface. But with crews going nonstop, 120 leaks were repaired in a single week, and exhausted Napa crews finally took a break on the next Sunday.

Just an hour west, on the edge of San Francisco Bay, the Richmond Municipal Sewer District’s battle against the forces of nature has been less dramatic but equally important. The utility, also profiled this month, has been fighting direct tidal inflow, groundwater infiltration from tidal saturation, stormwater inflow from connections between stormwater sources (downspouts and sumps) and the sewer system, and rainfall-dependent infiltration.

Your community may not border any sensitive waterways. Maybe you’ve never felt even the slightest tremor or caught a whiff of smoke blowing through the trees, but there are lessons to be learned in all these stories — lessons on preparedness, resilience, fortitude and success. Understanding how these utilities have dealt with their issues might help you guide your utility through something similar, or it might help you apply the same approach to an entirely different situation.

Regardless of how or when, I hope these stories can help you.

Enjoy this month’s issue.


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