Calm Under Pressure

Tennessee utility handles unprecedented flooding like any other day at the office.

Calm Under Pressure

First Utility District water plant operator Chris Smith replaces the backflow valve pump at the water treatment plant after the old pump failed. (Photography by Chloe Pool)

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First Utility District was ready when a series of heavy downpours drenched Knoxville, Tennessee, in February 2019. Unprecedented flooding inflicted $2 million in damage to district infrastructure, yet the utility reacted much like it does any other day.

“You find out on normal days who you are and respond that way in an emergency,” is how Bruce Giles puts it. Readiness comes from training capable people to handle a crisis with the same aplomb they do routine operations. While responses to emergency and daily situations differ dramatically, they are formulated by the same team of administrators and in-the-field personnel. In February 2019 and for several months after, First Utility District team members proved their mettle.

No status quo

Giles is general manager of the suburban utility district, which serves 62 square miles of southwest Knox County. He has been at the helm of the state-chartered agency for a decade. It is governed by a three-person board and serves more than 90,000 customers through 34,000 water and wastewater connections.

The utility is a progressive agency in the best sense of the word. Status quo is not even in the same area code. “We take an aggressive approach when looking at new things,” Giles says. “We’re careful with our dollars but as new technology is rolled out and tested, if we determine it will improve efficiencies in our organization or solve a problem, we’re willing to make the investment.”

District personnel are active in the Isle Utilities program, which originated in England and came to the U.S. in 2011. Twice a year, Isle sponsors regional gatherings of U.S. utility experts and municipal leaders to introduce innovative technologies and methodologies and foster interactive discussions. Giles terms it a clearinghouse.

A new idea becomes a staple at First Utility only when it’s merited. Case in point: The district’s wastewater treatment plant was the first in the state to earn a Class A biosolids permit, letting it reuse treated material as fertilizer. However, the process wasn’t cost-effective. “It proved cheaper to go to the landfill with the material,” Giles says. But that’s not the end of the story: New centrifuges are being installed and future plans include reintroducing the drying process that produces the biosolids if it becomes economically feasible.


When the utility isn’t dealing with historic floods like the one that arrived in 2019, it is immersed in day-to-day operations and maintenance programs like any other water utility. In September, crews were relocating 10,000 feet of waterlines and 600 feet of sewer lines in a six-month-long effort to accommodate a Knox County road improvement project.

In two other neighborhoods, utility crews were upgrading waterlines by replacing stretches of pipe. But dig-and-replace isn’t the only approach.

“We use an assortment of different techniques,” Giles says. “We’re not married to any one technology.” Crews, in fact, do a lot of cured-in-place rehabilitation work where best practices dictate.

The district’s equipment yard is home to more than $5 million of machinery, from Ingersoll Rand 185 trailered air compressors to CCTV inspection vans and even a pair of 14-ton Caterpillar 924K wheel loaders.

“We have some pretty large iron — whatever the crew needs to do a job effectively,” Giles says. Among the newest pieces of machinery is a Vactor 2112 Plus jet/vac truck with a 12-cubic-yard debris body and 1,500-gallon water tank. In all, the agency has four sewer cleaning rigs.

First Utility District has an $80 million, five-year capital improvement budget. The financial health of the utility is captured in a single fact: Operations and capital improvements are funded from a cash account.

Currently, the electric systems in the water treatment plant are being updated at a cost of several million dollars. The district sells about a half-million gallons of water per day to neighboring districts. Meanwhile, the wastewater plant is undergoing a $12 million upgrade to its solids-handling equipment along with new pumps and screens.

Because the utility system is situated in the Tennessee Valley rather than up and down mountainsides, drastic elevation changes in distribution and collections lines are not a problem. And while some elevation challenges do exist, operations manager Brad Brummett says they are mitigated by careful planning. “On the collections side, if we do new installs, we try to minimize the depth of our sewer lines.”

Wherever it can, First Utility District utilizes a low-pressure collections system instead of relying on gravity flow. The E/One-branded low-pressure system employs grinder pumps that collect sewage and reduce it to slurry, which then is pumped to sewer mains. The half-century-old technology also reduces maintenance work, according to Brummett. “Some studies were done and it was found the I&I component was less using a low-pressure system. We shifted to that as much as possible.”

Historic flood

All this day-to-day work at First Utility District was dramatically disrupted in February of last year when a storm unlike any other in local recorded history inundated the area. For several days, multiple inches of rain fell and pooled. “It was described as a 500-year flood,” Giles says. Water rose 20 feet above the designated 100-year floodplain.

Of the system’s 36 sewer pump stations, three were affected by the storm, with two of those being completely submerged. “The water level got so deep it reached the electric panels that were installed to a 200-year-flood standard,” Giles says. “The panels were up on a mezzanine 20 feet higher than the pumps.”

The panels are enclosed in boxes advertised as being waterproof. “They were waterproof from rain falling on them, not from being submerged under 20 feet of water,” Brummett says. “Nothing can withstand the type of pressure they were put under.”

All the flood water came from Ten Mile Creek. The stream, like some others in that part of Tennessee, flows above ground and then periodically disappears into caves and keeps moving at a subterranean level before resurfacing. The swollen creek overwhelmed normal outlets and flooding ensued, including in the areas where the pump stations were situated.

Quite suddenly, all those management and operations skills honed during routine workdays had to be applied under emergency conditions. When the two stations became submerged in muddy waters, Giles had to decide whether to order replacement pumps.

“It was a gut call,” he says. “We say around here that sometimes we have to do quick risk assessments. We couldn’t get to the pumps to assess the damage, but we knew if the pumps were ruined that we would have to take aggressive steps immediately to get new pumps here when we’d need them.”

So, two days after the stations disappeared under the water and six days before the water receded to where a visual inspection was possible, Giles ordered six new Vaughan chopper pumps, 75 and 100 hp models. “It’s my responsibility to make decisions like that.”

Inspection teams subsequently confirmed that the pumps and panels were unsalvageable. The new pumps arrived in September of last year.

An earlier decision also benefited the district — having on hand two diesel-powered bypass pumps. The pumps were a fruit of regular contingency planning sessions where emergency scenarios are posed and appropriate responses plotted. “That training was the key to the whole thing,” Brummett says. “All of our stations have bypass connections where you can hook up pumps and bypass the normal operation of a facility.”

The diesel pumps were hooked up and performed as designed. Operating the pumps cost $600 a day in diesel fuel, however, so Brummett called friends at the Dixon County Water Authority. The neighboring utility had electric bypass pumps of the same size as the diesel pumps and agreed to lend them for as long as needed, which, as it turned out, was five months.

“We are fortunate to have a strong network of utilities here and help each other whenever we can,” he says. “We’ve helped out others in the past.”

The right way

Eventually, of course, the water did recede. Infrastructure was repaired, new pumps and panels installed, and routine maintenance and capital improvement projects again became the order of the day.

The electric components of pump stations were raised even farther above ground elevation, and a few more safeguards and redundancies were implemented.

The general manager expresses no regrets about any of the decisions made under duress. Nor does he see any overriding lessons learned during the crisis. “I don’t know that we have learned anything new from the experience, but we have solidified in our minds what works. You have to have plans and processes in place. The flood solidified that what we have been doing is the right way to go.”

Through the years, First Utility District has won industry awards for organization-wide and individual performance. However, it had never been recognized nationally by the Water Environment Federation until it was cited in the aftermath of the 2019 flooding. Its months-long response to the disaster earned the WEF’s Water Hero Award.

The district’s overall excellence in financial management and proactive policies has resulted in numerous speaking invitations for managers and administrators. “We find it kind of uncanny that people like to hear our story,” Giles says. “In the last three years, we’ve done a lot of speaking in a lot of conferences. We think it’s all kind of commonsense. I’m very proud of my team.”

The Great Flood of ’19 — or however the event comes to be known — undoubtedly will bring more speaking requests. Brummett says the message is simple: “We empowered the employees to do their jobs and they performed exceptionally.” 


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