City points fingers at state for water fiasco
by Gary Kent
Jan 20, 2014 | 560 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Interim City Manager Marvin Townsend released a 14-page report on the water shortage.
Interim City Manager Marvin Townsend released a 14-page report on the water shortage.
BEEVILLE – In a 14-page written report, several of which contained exhibits, to the City Council, Interim City Manager Marvin Townsend explained why it was that Beeville residents went without water during a day and a half early last month.

The report was given to the City Council at its meeting Tuesday evening at City Hall.

Townsend blamed the problem on confusion at the George P. Morrill, I Water Treatment Plant at Swinney Switch, saying the situation was caused, in part, by members of a six-party team from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The team was visiting the plant at the time in an attempt to help the staff at the plant solve a lingering problem with turbidity levels in the treated water.

Townsend explained that the staff at the plant, built in 1985, had pumped about 1.25 billion gallons of water out of Lake Corpus Christi during 2013 and had sent about 1.1 billion gallons of that water to the City of Beeville.

The problem was that, over the years (20 times in 2010, 30 times in 2011 and 15 times through September 2012), the water headed to the city had reach or exceeded 2 Nepholometic Turbidity Units.

Anything over 1 NTUs is unacceptable, Townsend told the council. That was why the TCEQ team was at the Morrill plant in early December.

Concerns at the water plant

Townsend pointed out five major concerns at the aging treatment plant that contributed to the situation. Those included:

a. Failure to meet state treatment standards for water being delivered to the city, primarily as to turbidity.

b. Equipment aging with no replacement program in place and inability to take critical equipment, particularly clarifiers and filters, out of service for maintenance.

c. Rising customer demand.

d. Rising frequency of water loss due to line breaks and treatment problems at the plant with the resulting loss of in-city storage.

e. Difficulty in maintaining staff, due to other regional employment opportunities for semi-skilled and skilled workers and a pay plan that has provided minimum salary growth potential.

Problems arise

Townsend told the council that the problems at the plant increased almost a month earlier (Dec. 8 and 9) when the TECQ staff recommended changing the clarifier process by switching from an anion water-based polymer to a cation oil based polymer to remove the turbidity.

Apparently, the TCEQ staff members failed to provide significant warning “about the downside or potential problems that could result from such a change.”

Townsend said some problems were overlooked when the polymer change went into effect on Nov. 18.

Those included:

a. The city had no printed information about the polymer change or continuing guidance from the TCEQ or polymer sales staff.

b. There was no guidance as to how to respond to problems such as the clarifier floc blanket being too high and threatening to overflow into the filters.

c. Although the city’s plant staff was told not to use the previous polymer to lower the floc blanket, the night crew knew that the old polymer had worked before and went back to using it to avoid (as they saw it) clogging the filters.

d. The staff at the plant was not told that a 500-gallon tank with baffles was needed to mix the new polymer with water before adding the diluted polymer to the plant’s clarifiers.

Mixing chemicals

One or more of the employees at the plant decided to dump gallons of the old polymer into the center of each clarifier to lower the floc blanket.

The floc blanket consists of coagulated alum, polymer and foreign matter, which should settle to the bottom of the clarifier tank where it eventually is drawn out of the structure.

But using both polymers actually increased the coagulated masses and that led to the floc blanket flowing over the clarifiers and clogging the filters.

The chemicals attracted each other and caused a faster and more complex floc development.

Ten gallons of the old, undiluted polymer were added to the clarifiers sometime after Dec. 2.

“Current plant operation requires the use of the two clarifiers, four filters, the full wash water settlement basin and the two-tank clear well that operates both as the finished tank for water about to enter the transmission main and as the standby clear well which is the source of finished water used to backwash the four filters,” Townsend’s report said.

The fact that the plant does not have a third clarifier and filter set added considerable time to the water outage.

That, combined with some serious water leaks in the system, created the perfect storm for Beeville’s water customers on Dec. 3 and 4.

Water leaks

Townsend said a major water leak reported by the Bee Development Authority at the Chase Field Industrial and Airport Complex accounted for the loss of a million gallons.

Also, leaks at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s William G. McConnell Unit caused the loss of another 1.1 million gallons of water.

Those leaks occurred between Nov. 25 and Dec. 2.

Meanwhile, there was a problem in assembling backup crews to address the leaks during the Thanksgiving holiday. That was compounded by a slow response by a “call before you dig” official who has to serve three counties.

No more waiting

Townsend said that in the future, that problem should be avoided because city repair crews will not wait for a “call before you dig” person before they initiate repairs.

Another problem was that the city’s repairmen had problems locating cutoff valves. And then some of the valves have not been maintained.

Significant changes in air temperatures also created more water usage.

Townsend told the council that the result was that when Beeville residents went to their showers on Dec. 3, there was effectively no water in the city’s elevated storage tanks.

Figures included in the report showed that Beeville has a storage capacity of more than 2.9 million gallons of water in the five ground tanks in the city.

Another 1.3 million gallons can be held in the three elevated tanks in town, bringing the total capacity to more than 4.2 million gallons.

However, Townsend pointed out that none of those tanks can be filled to capacity without risking an overflow.

The water department’s goal is to maintain about 2.4 million gallons of water in storage.

Water drops

On Nov. 26, the city had the most water stored in its tanks. That was 2.3 gallons or water or 79.2 percent of capacity.

But that began dropping as of Nov. 27, and it continued to drop until it was down to 634,430 gallons (21.41 percent of capacity) on Dec. 2. On Dec. 3, the city had only 250,789 gallons (8.46 percent) in storage.

That had increased to 349,712 gallons of water (11.8 percent) by Dec. 4.

The report also pointed out staffing problems at the Morrill treatment plant. Townsend said it requires 10 employees at the site to maintain two persons per shift over a 24-hour period.

The city will need to budget an additional $110,000 a year to bring one additional Operator II and Operator III on board at the plant in addition to one Operator I (trainee).

The current pay scale at the plant ranges from $59,155 a year for the superintendent to $23,524 for a trainee.

Operators holding the II or III level licenses make $26,062 a year.

The total spent on salaries for employees at the plant is $323,600 a year.

Lessons learned

Townsend’s report listed four lessons learned by the city regarding what should be done to prevent another situation in which city residents have no water. They were:

1. When stored water in the city’s ground and overhead tanks cannot recover by dawn the next day the community should be asked to cease all unnecessary water consumption.

That would include yard watering, car washing and irrigating facilities at the city’s parks until the tank levels have been restored.

Townsend said that should be carried out regardless of the problem, whether it be caused by a large fire, water line breaks, loss of power at the pump stations or problems at the treatment plant.

2. There should be no change in the chemical process at the plant without training classes before the change goes into effect. Typed guidelines with the operators’ written acknowledgement of having read the guidelines should be used. Townsend also recommended removal from the plant or at least no access by employees to any chemical no longer in use.

3. A constant supply of water should be maintained at the plant for backwashing the filters. That requires about 100,000 gallons of finished water to accomplish.

The current piping at the at the plant also allows for the levels in both clear well tanks to fluctuate. Townsend said that should be corrected promptly.

4. Better and easier-to-read records should be kept for every phase of treatment and pumping processes at the plant.

As for correcting the problems at the plant in the future, the report had four recommendations.

Those included:

•Staff development. There are almost no plant operators available for hire. The city needs to change the habits of existing employees or hire new personnel and train them to become operators.

— Achieving that goal would include recruiting three licensed operators and adjusting the pay to help in that goal.

— Requiring the city’s utility director to start and end each day at the treatment plant so that anything that needs his direction can be addressed.

— Developing new written procedures for critical steps in the treatment process. That would include written assurances that plant personnel have read and received the written procedures.

•All employees not certified should be required to apply for Class D licenses after a certain time period.

•See that the following capital improvements are made at the treatment plant:

— Assuring adequate backwash water at all times to restore damaged or clogged filters. Townsend said that might be accomplished by making well water available and by creating a backup system.

— Providing an additional clarifier at the plant. (Beeville Water Supply District board members have been recommending this step for years.)

— Providing additional filters.

— Expanding storage at the Clareville pumping station to eliminate the restriction in transmission capacity there.

The report suggested contracting with a nearby farmer for the use of well water there, if good quality water is available, for a backup system.

— Additional ground and overhead storage tanks in the city.

Townsend’s report pointed out that storage capacity figures are misleading because the lower few feet of water in a tank cannot be pumped out because of pump limitations.

The report said that because of the distance to the lake from the city’s storage tanks, a two-day storage capacity may be a more reasonable goal.

(Again, BWSD board members have been suggesting more storage tanks for years. Board President Jim Crumrine has suggested building large storage tanks on Bee County Expo Center property west of the city. Crumrine believes the higher elevation of that property would also improve water pressure within the city.)

— Steps should be taken to isolate or automatically close valves if the main system at Chase Field remains in service without a 24-hour, on-site surveillance system.

•Improvements to the information system controlling all water levels in the city should be carried out so that the system has state-of-the-art equipment and design.

That would include a control panel in town so that transmission to storage and facilities and support for firefighting equipment could be controlled from an office in the city.

Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at
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