Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Water under the bridge

Here's a look back at the water crisis of June 2006 as reported in the Times:



Published: July 9, 2006

Joe McIntyre's stomach was churning.

He was on his cell phone, getting a progress report on the Trenton Water Works' reservoir, and the news was disturbing.

Water in the city's reservoir had begun to whirlpool around the main pipe that feeds the system, much as water emptying from a tub will swirl around a drain.

It was less than 48 hours after Water Works employees shut down the filtration plant to keep the roiling Delaware, engorged by rains and cresting its banks, from fouling the system. What the vortexing water meant to McIntyre, the Water Works chief, was that the reservoir that supplies water to some 210,000 people in five towns was dangerously close to empty.

The inspection on the morning of June 30 was the culmination of two days of frantic maneuvering by the city's water department to keep Trenton's taps from running dry.

While residents fled the Island and Glen Afton neighborhoods to avoid the rising river and floodwaters poured into river towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, causing nearly $8 million in damage in Mercer County alone, city employees were locked in the Water Works plant, hoping to squeeze every last drop from the beleaguered system.

And while the crisis that could have left the Water Works' customers without drinking water for weeks was averted, officials say there is little that can be done to fortify the system against future shutdowns.

An upgrade to the system, planned to begin later this year, will help, officials say, but ultimately, the river is the boss.

The crisis began at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, June 28.

McIntyre, the Water Works chief, reported to the filtration plant to find the Delaware agitated into a tempest by stormwater that began pouring into the river the day before.

Testing showed that the water, which is sucked from the river each day to supply the city and surrounding areas, was dangerously muddy. McIntyre had two choices.

He could shut down the system, ceasing all filtration until the river returned to normal and force the city to rely on the 2-day supply stored in the reservoir. Or he could wait and continue filtering the silt-filled water and risk fouling the system, forcing a prolonged shutdown and a hardship for tens of thousands of customers.

Neither option sounded good, but McIntyre chose the riskier route.

"We decided to shut the plant down," the water department chief said in an interview last week about the near catastrophe. "It was nerve-wracking, and it required us to live at the plant for a couple of days to monitor the water, but the alternative was to be more conservative and risk losing the system longer term." 'THE CLOCK BEGAN TO TICK'The system's demand for water runs about 30 million gallons per day. The reservoir is continually replenished by water, sucked from the Delaware and chemically filtered to create what's known in water-supply circles as a floc - a clump of particles that settles to the bottom and is removed from the liquid.

At full capacity, the plant can filter as much as 40 million gallons per day, easily keeping up with the demand.

But when McIntyre threw the switch to shut down the plant, "the clock began to tick."

"From that point we began monitoring how long we were off-line and how that correlated to the amount of water left in the reservoir," he said.

Alerts went out to residents to begin conserving water, and Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer put in a call to Gov. Jon Corzine, beseeching the state's top executive to close down the dozens of state offices located in the city and send thousands of workers home. The governor's action saved more than 3 million gallons for each of the two days the offices were closed.

"Had the governor not closed the state, we would have been in trouble," Palmer said. "He understood the seriousness of the situation, but if he didn't, I think we might have run out of water." HOPEFUL SIGNSMcIntyre's gamble began to look like it might pay off, when at 10 p.m. on June 29 testing showed the water was calming and the amount of silt - or turbidity - began to decrease. The employees, many of whom had not left the plant since the shutdown the morning of June 28, began to feel optimistic that the crisis might be over.

But it was not to be.

"Right after that, we had a spike again," McIntyre said. "It was frustrating because we had begun to get in the mind-set that we would get it running again earlier in the day, but we couldn't."

After the Friday morning inspection of the reservoir, McIntyre knew time had run out. If the water could not be properly filtered and the reservoir ran dry, officials would have no choice but to pump dirty water into the system.

Once that decision is made, McIntyre said, there is no turning back.

"Once you pump in substandard water, the plant will need to be cleaned and that could take several days," he said. "It creates a real hardship for customers for a number of weeks while the system is cleaned."

Finally, with no time left, McIntyre made the decision to fire up the plant. The turbidity was decreasing - though not as fast as he would have liked - and the reservoir was nearly dry.

By 3:40 p.m. June 30, the system was up and running, and employees were running dozens of tests to see if the water could be purified enough for drinking without first boiling it to kill any residual bacteria.

By 10 p.m., the crisis was over as the system began to meet the demands of its customers. Only Ewing was adversely affected when pressure dropped in three areas. A boil-water advisory went out for parts of the township but has since been lifted. PLANNING FOR THE FUTURECity officials say they have learned from the near calamity and are using the knowledge to try to ensure there is no future disaster. The plant is in line for some $50 million in renovations later this year, which Palmer said will modernize the system and make it more efficient as well as increase the amount of water that can be filtered each day.

The city is also negotiating with other providers to increase the amount of water that can be supplied in the event of a crisis.

But to some extent, the city is at the mercy of the river's moods.

"We deal with whatever the river hands us," McIntyre said. "We don't have the power to change the characteristic of the river, so we have to adapt and deal with whatever it throws at us. Sometimes you can do that with effectiveness and sometimes you can't."

For McIntyre, it was too close for comfort. The water dropped to a level not seen since 1975, when a malfunction caused the filtration plant to flood and damaged the pumps.

"We stretched the line as far as we can go," he said. "It was very close. The reservoir level was down to spots where no one that I have dealt with here has ever seen."

What the future holds is anyone's guess, experts say. Upriver development has destroyed wetlands and forests and left nowhere for runoff to go, said Bob Molzahn, president of the Water Resources Association of the Delaware Basin. Several bad storms have highlighted the problems as well, he said.

"What's the solution?" he asked. "I don't know, but you wonder if it might not get worse."


Copyright, 2006, The Times, Trenton N.J. All Rights Reserved.

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