BEEVILLE – “How did a chemical get dumped?” City Councilman Santiago “Jimbo” Martinez asked Beeville’s water superintendent during an emergency council meeting Wednesday morning.
Martinez, a former mayor and a state employee with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, was questioning City Water Superintendent Cesario Vela before a packed council chamber at City Hall.
He wanted to know how it was that a single employee at the George P. Morrill Water Treatment Plant had managed to reduce the flow of treated water to the city, leaving the entire community without water for two days.
Martinez urged the city staff to encourage residents to reduce the amount of water they use for at least a couple of days until the storage tanks in town can refill.
Martinez seemed most interested in how Beeville can prevent another incident like the one city residents faced when they awoke Tuesday morning to find no water coming out of their faucets.
He also wanted to know why no residents knew that the water storage tanks were bone dry before they got out of bed Tuesday.
Vela said he had not heard about the situation until he arrived at work Tuesday morning.
Under questioning, however, Vela revealed that the problem arose Monday night when clogged filters at the Morrill plant at Swinney Switch practically stopped the flow of water to the city.
“It’s my call. I didn’t do it early enough,” Vela admitted. He said he believed the treatment plant would be able to get more water to the city.
Mayor David Carabajal said he realized the scope of the problem when he turned his faucet at 6 p.m. Tuesday and found no water coming out.
Carabajal said he immediately called interim City Manager Marvin Townsend and Vela, wanting to know what was happening.
He said he had been assured earlier in the day that the city would have water again by 6 p.m.
“We were misinformed,” Carabajal said. “We were not informed early enough.”
“It was my fault,” Vela admitted. Based on the system’s capacity, he thought water service would be fully restored by 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Councilman George P. “Trace” Morrill III said it was apparent that the city staff knew by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday that the city would have no water.
“But they worked all through Monday night, and they knew at sometime Monday night,” Morrill said. “They didn’t notify anyone.”
Vela responded that no one realized how serious the problem was until Tuesday morning.
“Did they shut down the plant?” Morrill asked.
“No,” Vela answered.
Carabajal also asked Vela what steps had been taken to assure city residents that something like that would not happen again.
Vela said the water plant employee who put an excess amount of a chemical into one of the clarifiers at Swinney Switch had been terminated.
“Violators of policy will be terminated,” Vela said. “If someone’s going to do something like this, they’ll do it. This is not the first incident like that for this employee.”
He then told the council he did not think anything like that would happen again.
“People deserve answers,” Martinez said. He then asked Bee County Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Bridge if the state representative and the state senator had been notified of the situation.
Bridge said State Rep. J.M. Lozano had, in fact, been scheduled to speak at a function in Beeville that day. But when he was told that the Beeville Country Club, where the event was to take place, had canceled the luncheon, he returned to Austin.
Bridge said Lozano reported that he was going to inform Gov. Rick Perry of the water situation here.
Lozano confirmed later in the morning that he had told the governor’s office of the situation.
After Vela assured that water storage and pressures would be restored to normal within 24 hours, council members had more questions.
“You’re saying that within 24 hours we should have normal pressure?” Carabajal asked.
“How do we know we’ll reach that?” Martinez asked.
Vela said the treatment plant was pumping 5.6 millions gallons of water a day to the city. At that level of production, he said it was safe to assume that normal water pressures would be resumed within that time frame.
Vela’s prediction proved correct. By the end of the day Wednesday, most residents had near normal water pressures.
City water users remained under a state-issued “boil water” notice.
That step is automatically taken any time water pressure in the city’s lines drop below 20 pounds per square inch.
Water system supervisors were assuring residents that city water is safe to use for most purposes. They did say not to drink water unless it had been brought to a rolling boil for two minutes before drinking.
The boil water notice was expected to be lifted by the TCEQ by sometime Friday afternoon.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.