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By Dan Rudy 

Water shortage prompts state of emergency in Wrangell

 


With the supply of treated water dangerously low, the Borough Assembly officially declared the city to be in a state of disaster Tuesday evening.

The decision was reached during a special session in which officials met with departmental staff and representatives of Wrangell’s two fish processing plants, Trident Seafoods and Sea Level Seafoods. With the processing season already underway and production ramping up, the two together are consuming about half of the community’s water.

Alarm bells were raised by Public Works when it reported its reserves of treated water had come threateningly low. After water is treated and filtered at the plant, the treated product is stored in two 424,000-gallon tanks before distribution. Due to the position of each’s outflow about 130,000 gallons are considered unusable, effectively limiting overall capacity to 718,000 gallons.

In past years, the plant has struggled to meet demand during the summer peak, but usually the problem has been with the level of its two open reservoirs falling too low. What makes this year’s emergency different is a problem with the 17-year-old plant itself. Though designed to treat 1,000 gallons per minute, or around 1,300,000 gallons per day, Wrangell’s plant manager Wayne McHolland estimated its output has lately been reduced by a quarter or more.

A longstanding problem with the system has been its filtration method, which relies on a slow sand technique. The approach has proven ill-suited to Wrangell’s water source, and McHolland explained Public Works has struggled to keep its four filters clear of buildup. Never designed to backwash, the filters instead have to be manually changed out and cleared, a lengthy process which can take seven or eight hours to accomplish for each one.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said.

In addition to the time cost, the process reduces outflow from four channels to three, limiting production to at most 750 gallons per minute. The change-out also ends up wasting a considerable amount of treated water as well, with between 160,000 and 200,000 gallons lost for each filter change. Sedimentation from the reservoir also plays a factor in how often each needs to be cleared, ordinarily keeping maintenance on a once-per-week schedule.

But low rainfall and high turbidity this summer has made the water unusually dirty, and McHolland estimated each filter at the plant needs changing every three or four days.

“The plant has not had a break since 4th of July,” he said.

As a result of this, reserve levels of treated water began to drop. On July 13 they had reached a point where lines connecting to the community pool and harbor facilities were shut down that afternoon. The taps stayed dry for the harbors until next morning, with the pool resuming service on July 15.

“There wasn’t a significant reduction,” Borough Manager Jeff Jabusch explained.

One area which was considered wasteful under present circumstances was water sold primarily to cruise ships at the city dock, a practice which was decided will now be discontinued. From June 21 to Tuesday’s press time, over 3,800,000 gallons of treated water were distributed that way, for a return to the city of little more than $9,000.

Of more economic consequence to the community, the two seafood processors together used 6,389,000 gallons of water for plant operations. With water levels falling to such low levels, Public Works director Amber Al-Haddad reported both had been given notice Sunday and Monday that production may have to pause until reserves could be caught up again. Trident was given 12-hour notice Monday evening, which caused it to divert two tenders to its Ketchikan facility and limit its activities Tuesday to about three hours of production.

Jabusch said both processors had already been working with the city to reduce their overall water usage, finding efficiencies with salt water where possible.

Trident Southeast manager John Webby estimated the Wrangell plant had cut its treated water usage in half since last year.

“We’re down to 150 gallons a minute,” he said.

Sea Level manager Vern Phillips said some immediate changes at his plant could cut its usage down by 60 percent this week. But both managers were concerned about the city’s water treatment production capabilities, and questioned whether the utility could be relied on to deliver when fish production escalates next month.

“When this peak comes unless there’s something miraculously done with this filter problem it’s not going to work,” said Phillips. He anticipated the salmon would start to come in in full force by next week. “It’s not a fun time and it’s going to get worse. And it’s going to get worse in a very short amount of time.”

Water usage by seafood processors was not the only concern at hand, as Al-Haddad acknowledged there was always the potential for leaks and inefficiencies in the distribution system. While her department was continuing to check pipes and make repairs as needed, she said the process was inexact.

Jabusch said all city departments had been contacted and were looking at ways to limit water usage. The call for conservation was extended to individual utility users as well, with residents asked to check for leaks themselves and curtail personal consumption by 30 to 50 percent during the state of emergency.

“I don’t think people are really understanding the severity,” commented Assembly member Stephen Prysunka. Though the warning had already been in effect nearly a week, earlier in the day he had noticed one resident washing his boat, and another watering the garden. On Wednesday leaflets were due to arrive in residents’ post boxes informing them of the problem and offering advice on how to cut back.

Currently no ordinances on the books deal with resource misallocation or emergency rationing, and Chief Doug McCloskey of the Police Department said there was little officers could do to enforce conservation. However, he did point out that Public Works could turn off water to individual users and businesses which continued to waste the resource.

Solutions to some of the plant’s problems were few in number, and could take time to implement. One of the more compelling and quicker fixes would be to address sediment buildup problems with the plant’s roughing filters. If given the materials, McHolland estimated those could be fixed in two days.

McCloskey advised the Assembly to formally declare a local disaster emergency, as he found the city’s low treated water reserves fit the parameters set by Alaska Statute. In doing so, it also agreed to extend to Jabusch the authority to sign off on the emergency order, which will be referred to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for assistance. This may come in the form of emergency aid or technical advice.

Jabusch was also enabled by the Assembly to forgo standard procurement codes in purchasing materials and labor necessary for improving the water treatment plant’s output. Moving forward, he said he would be working closely with the two processors and city departments in order to alleviate the crisis.

For the local processors, a solution cannot come soon enough.

Without going into details, Webby said the delays in processing were costing his company a considerable amount of money. But what was worse was the uncertain availability of water in the near future, as it impaired his ability to make informed management decisions.

“I need to know,” he told the Assembly. “I have to make a call here pretty soon as to what we’re going to do.”

Phillips expressed his hope that the city would keep the problem a priority, particularly once the peak demand had passed after the summer.

“This problem is going to exist next year and it’s going to exist the year after,” he said. “We just can’t lose sight of this. It’s gone on like that for way too long.”

The ongoing water situation has been added to the Assembly’s agenda for its next scheduled meeting, at 7 p.m. July 26.

 

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