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Preparation and Resilience: How EWEB Maintained Water Service During Recent Ice Storm

February 05, 2024 Claire Wray, EWEB Communications

Photo: The backup generator at EWEB's Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant. The generator, one of several recent resiliency projects, made it possible for EWEB to maintain water service during the storm. 

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EWEB’s water system was put to the test in January when a severe ice storm knocked out power to its sole water filtration plant and stressed pump stations and other equipment.

In all, EWEB patched six water main breaks, repaired a pump station, and operated the plant on backup power for over 36 hours during the storm. 

Recent resiliency upgrades – like a new generator at the plant – and quick thinking by staff made it possible for EWEB to keep water flowing.

But how? And what’s it like to maintain operations when the power goes out?

“It was cold and stressful,” said Ray Leipold, Water Supply and Treatment Supervisor for the Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant. “Ironically, the plant’s heating systems are not connected to backup power.”

New Backup Generator System

Less than five years ago, the answer to those questions would have been: “impossible.”  The plant was only able to maintain operations because of a new backup generator system that was installed in 2020.

Before that, people just couldn’t imagine a scenario where backup power would be needed. The plant is fed by three different power lines. But with the threat of the Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake and with recent storms growing both in length and intensity, EWEB knew an upgrade was needed. 

It came just in time. All three lines of power went down on January 14 and the plant switched to the backup power system for the first time. The initial outage lasted 36 hours. Other outages followed in shorter bursts.

Power is critical for plant operations. Every treatment process requires electricity, as does the lab equipment that continually monitors water quality. The pump stations that pull water from the McKenzie River and push water out of the plant also need power to function.

The switch to the generators was seamless, but Leipold soon faced a new challenge. The company contracted to refuel the generators was unable to drive in the icy conditions. Leipold called on EWEB’s fleet, which chained up and started delivering fuel in batches every 12 hours.

Distribution System Challenges

Meanwhile, EWEB’s distribution team was monitoring a complex network of 28 power-dependent pump stations that deliver water to homes at higher elevations in the city. While water flows by gravity to 80% of EWEB customers, the remaining 20% in hilly areas rely on pump stations to deliver water to their taps.

“The trouble for my team is all of our pump stations are on hills,” said Jeremiah Hunt, who oversees EWEB’s water distribution operations, “so, the higher up on the hill, the worse the conditions were.”

Normally, the team can monitor pump stations remotely, but the storm knocked out communications to a few. The pump stations have backup generators, but without communications, it was impossible to know if they had kicked on.

“Things go blind,” said Hunt, “you can’t tell what’s happening.”

Pump stations are critical to maintaining pressure, which keeps contaminants out of the system. Getting eyes on stations that are no longer communicating is so important that one of Hunt’s employees used a pickaxe and shovel to carve stairs up to one that had stopped transmitting at the height of the storm.

Luckily, inspections revealed that all pump stations retained power, except for one which experienced a 2-minute outage. EWEB calculated that six customers could have been affected by a loss of pressure and issued a precautionary boil water notice for affected homes. It was lifted approximately 24 hours later after water samples tested normal.

Thaw Brings New Complications

Temperatures rose dramatically starting overnight on Tuesday, Jan. 16 and into Wednesday, Jan. 17, which helped with road conditions, but unleashed a whole new set of challenges for operations.

On the plant side, the thaw meant a sudden wash of water into the river which brings sediment along with it. Turbid, sediment-dense water is difficult to treat even under normal circumstances.

The plant was running on backup power when it experienced two spikes in turbidity. An upgrade to the early warning mechanisms on the river completed after the Holiday Farm fire helped significantly, but Leipold also credits his operators for maintaining treatment.

“Our staff is really skilled,” said Leipold. “It takes a lot of operator intervention and even though we have all this equipment, you have to be able to use it and make the right decisions.”

Out in the distribution system, the thaw brought structural issues. Four distribution pipelines burst the day of the thaw, with six total throughout the storm. Crews deployed to patch them up, achieving response times consistent with non-storm situations. 

Looking Ahead

Both Leipold and Hunt credit the stellar storm response to their staff and the utility’s focus on upgrading infrastructure for resiliency and ease of operation. 

“The pump station that stopped transmitting, we already have a plan to replace it,” said Hunt. “Engineering has worked really well with water operations to focus on making the system more reliable.”

Eliminating problem equipment and modernizing storage facilities, like installing new, seismically resilient round tanks at E. 40th Avenue and College Hill, will give operators more flexibility when unprecedented situations arise.

The utility is also moving forward on long range projects like the Willamette Treatment Plant which will provide EWEB with a second source of water for the first time. This project has been decades in the making—but just as the backup generator system shows—a focus on resiliency is needed now more than ever.

As for Leipold, he’s focused on keeping good people at EWEB.

“The response of everybody was great,” he said. “Although the weather was unfortunate, I don't know what we could have done better, really.”