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Emergencies are one of the things California does very well. Residents and public officials get a lot of firsthand experience in the Golden State. Everyone in the U.S. understands that California is earthquake country, but it also is prone to wildfires, flooding, mudslides, severe heat, high winds, freezing and drought.
In 2008, California government agencies, water and wastewater utilities and 5 million residents participated in the largest emergency response exercise ever undertaken in U.S. history: Shakeout and Golden Guardian 2008. This scenario was written by Dr. Lucy Jones and the best minds in the U.S. Geological Survey Multi-Hazards Demonstration Group, with input from all jurisdictions, including water and wastewater agencies.
Imagine a 7.8-magnitude earthquake occurs on a 200-mile section of the southern San Andreas Fault, starting at the Salton Sea and migrating west to Lake Hughes, north of Los Angeles. The devastation in southern California would be catastrophic, affecting millions of people. The damage to California’s residents, infrastructure and the economy would forever change the face of California and the nation as a whole.
Utilities and agencies across the state learned many lessons with this exercise, leaving each agency, utility and the state agencies with more questions than answers. Participants learned how to respond better, improve communication and understand the workings of agencies. All made changes to emergency response plans and procedures and are in a better position today for having invested the time, money and effort in exercising this scenario.
In early 2009, utilities, state officials and regulatory agencies formed a task force to address the major lessons learned from the 2008 exercise and to begin addressing the water and wastewater issues before the “big one” hits. In California, it is not if, but when, a major earthquake is coming.
The task force team combined the lessons learned from each utility to form a clearer consensus of the utilities’ needs. One main focus was that water and wastewater agencies lacked communication and coordination with each other, the operational areas (normally the counties in California), the California Department of Public Health and the state regional offices of the California Emergency Management Agency. This lack of communication and coordination could impact the recovery of the water and wastewater utilities severely, which in turn could threaten human lives and the bottom line in the damage estimate.
If the public does not have a safe drinking water supply, the population will move to a location that has the necessities to support basic life functions. Look at the population of New Orleans today compared to pre-Hurricane Katrina, for example.
Another item identified by the task force highlighted that, in any catastrophic incident, all water and wastewater utilities will need the same items: pipes, valves, water, chemicals and staffing, to name some. The same question kept coming up: “Who gets what when?”
The task force came up with a plan to give water and wastewater utilities some coordination and a voice in the recovery process, mutual aid and assistance. This came in the form of the Water Desk, a position at the Regional Operation Center, county, city or utility to assist utilities in recovery in any emergency—not just a large-scale event.
The Water Desk unexpectedly was put into operation shortly after the Baja Earthquake on April 4, 2010. This earthquake affected the communities in Imperial County and caused major damage to water infrastructure in the cities of Calexico, Imperial, Seeley, El Centro, Heber and others.
Water and wastewater agencies were busy attempting to correct issues and keep water and wastewater flowing in what was left of their distribution systems. The county was dealing with its issues. The utilities did not understand how or when they could ask for mutual aid or services from the county or the state.
Within a day, The California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (CalWARN) was asked by the state to supply utility-trained staff to the Southern Regional Emergency Operation Center (REOC) and Imperial County. Within two days, CalWARN activated the Water Desk plan at the REOC, the Imperial County Office of Emergency Services and the City of Calexico Water and Wastewater Agency to support the state, county and affected utilities.
The city of Calexico’s water and wastewater departments were the most impacted in Imperial County. This utility had damage to pipelines, reservoirs, sewerage retaining ponds, sewer pipelines and a 10-million-gal-per-day water clarifier used in the potable water treatment system. The only way to complete the treatment process was to obtain portable treatment units, and this came with its own challenges.
CalWARN representatives at the county and state Water Desks were able to find four Pall treatment units that could help fill the void. One of the challenges was to get two of these units transported from New York state to southern California. It took more than two weeks to complete the task and another week to get these two units hooked up and permitted with water flowing into the system. It took an additional three weeks for Pall to finish manufacturing and shipping two additional units to southern California to complete the potable water treatment task.
When dealing with a population of approximately 35,000 people in this instance, the question came to mind, “When this big event strikes California, in a populated center, just how are we going to maintain water service for 2.5 million people or more?”
Connecting for Community
The next set of challenges involves connecting the national WARN system together to move resources across state lines during emergencies. As an industry, water and wastewater professionals have their work cut out for them. Not just in California, but as a community of interlocking utilities serving the public this precious, taken-for-granted liquid asset. Not to mention, what are they going to do with all of the raw sewage flooding streets and waterways? It is going to take teamwork from utilities, states and federal agencies to help mitigate these issues. Are we all up for the challenge?