City considers ways to shore up water system

The city of Victoria draws its water from the Guadalupe River. The water goes into off-channel reservoirs and through the raw water pump station (1). From the raw water pump station, it goes to the surface water treatment plant (2), a distribution pump station (3) and one of the city's five water towers before going to private residences. After Hurricane Harvey, the city is considering placing generators at the three locations shown.

The city of Victoria is looking at ways to keep its water system from failing during the next hurricane.

Although city staffers initially said it wasn't feasible, they now recommend generators be placed at the raw water pump station, the surface water treatment plant and one distribution pump station.

"I think that's a great idea," Public Works Director Donald Reese said. "As a matter of fact, we applied for a grant several years ago for a permanent generator to be placed at the distribution pump station, and it was denied by FEMA."

These parts of the water system are critical and were crippled by Hurricane Harvey.

What happened

Specifically, the raw water pump station had water in its reservoirs but couldn't push it to the surface water treatment plant because it lost power.

The surface water treatment plant had treated water, but couldn't push it to distribution pumps because it lost power.

The same was true for a distribution pump located near the intersection of Ben Jordan Street and Airline Road. It had about 5 million gallons of treated water that it could not push to two of Victoria's five water towers.

The towers, meanwhile, were drained afterward partly because downed trees uprooted and broke water lines to homes.

The city had only one generator at its disposal for Harvey, a 600-kilowatt generator on a trailer that city staff refer to as "the white whale."

The city bought it for $130,000 in 2007.

Reese said that generator was placed at the distribution pump at Ben Jordan Street and Airline Road because that pump has been known to lose power. It was where the city had asked FEMA for the money to place a generator before, he said.

City staff tested it before Harvey made landfall, but it didn't work afterward.

"I think the hurricane-force winds blew rain into a vent screen or something and the water got onto the control board somehow. That's just my educated guess," Reese said.

DeTar Healthcare System then loaned the city a 1,200-kilowatt generator to place there.

"And for a little while, we were able to get water pushed out into the system, but it eventually ran out," Reese said, "and again, our critical failure was the raw water pump station and, at this time, not only had the raw water pump station lost power, but it was also starting to flood around it."

Reese said city staff expects the raw water pump station to be inaccessible whenever the river rises to 29 feet. He said this was not necessarily a concern because the station had never simultaneously lost power.

Councilman Jeff Bauknight asked a friend to loan the city an airboat to get out there.

He remembered going over the top of a chain link fence and seeing the pumps on a hill surrounded by water.

He thinks the site needs to be reconfigured.

While Reese said the hill - which is manmade - could be widened to place a generator there, Bauknight recommended an all-weather road be built to make it accessible during a flood.

Reese said building such a road would be expensive, and the city could install a generator that would turn on automatically after a power loss. Reese added that natural gas rather than diesel could feed that generator so it takes up less space.

Well-water

Meanwhile, with three critical parts of the water system unable to work together to give Victorians drinkable water, the city tried bringing its water wells back online.

The city has 10 wells and, by this time, it was able to replace the fried control panel on its 600-kilowatt generator to bring at least one online.

But because well water had not been pushed to the surface water treatment plant in a long time, the pipes serving it underground burst.

Reese said city staff worked feverishly to repair those pipes and had completed the job just as AEP restored power, making the wells unnecessary.

Reese said the city will now put those pipes under pressure every quarter to make sure they're working.

He said, generally, the city doesn't like to mix its groundwater and surface water. Groundwater has iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide in it "which sometimes gives it that rotten-egg smell."

Closing the valve

Bauknight has so far been the only City Council member to publicly criticize the city for not being prepared.

At an Oct. 16 City Council meeting, he said those working in the city-county emergency operations center should have been more proactive about getting a generator.

Bauknight recommended the city valve off its water towers to conserve water for emergencies.

In an interview with the Advocate afterward, Bauknight repeated these criticisms and recommendations.

"If that Tanglewood fire had happened when we didn't have any water, that would've been horrible," he said.

Bauknight was referring to a fire that occurred at the Tanglewood Apartments on Westwood Drive that broke out about 8:15 p.m. Aug. 25, the day Harvey made landfall. It displaced five residents.

When the water system down, the city had limited capability to fight any fires.

The Victoria Fire Department worked with volunteer departments to have tankers, which carry an average of 2,500 gallons of water, full and parked throughout the city in case of a fire when there was no water. The department was notified before the tap going dry, Assistant Chief Tracy Fox said.

"If it's a one-bedroom fire, we would never probably expend that, but if it's half or three quarters of a house, we could easily expend that much water," Fox said of 2,500 gallons. "Also, all of our fire apparatuses have the ability to draw water from a static source. A good example of that is a swimming pool."

He agreed with Bauknight that Victoria was fortunate not to have to fight more fires at a time when water was unavailable.

"It wasn't something we were expecting, I will say that," Fox said. "But it wasn't totally unusual to us because that's how we operate in the county where there's not a water supply."

Reese said as a general rule, one doesn't valve off one's water supply.

"After the storm passes, you don't know if you can get your staff back out to the towers to open the valves back up or if there's going to be trees blocking the road or power lines that make that inaccessible," he said.

Generating possibilities

Bauknight's other recommendations were updating the water system to easily switch to generator power and talking with a company called Power Secure.

Power Secure can install and maintain generators for the city if the city periodically switches to generator power when the electric grid is overloaded. The city would then give Power Secure the subsequent savings on its electric bill.

"It's a very interesting idea, and I hope it will bear fruit," Bauknight said.

Reese agreed.

"It is an interesting idea, but it's just one of those you have to look at and study and figure out if it's best for the city to pay them to do it or if it's best for us to own the generator and enter into these agreements with power companies to get reimbursed ourselves," he said.

Meanwhile, Reese has received a proposal from CDM Smith Inc. to consult on this and other matters.

If CDM Smith Inc. wants to charge more than $25,000 to consult, the City Council will have to approve it.

CDM Smith Inc. designed the surface water treatment plant, which began operating in 2001, and the waste water treatment plant off Southwest Ben Jordan Street, which began operating in 2016.

Reese said CDM Smith Inc. could also help the city find grants to pay for generators.

He said in several months, grants should become available either from FEMA or the Texas Water Development Board.

Bauknight continues to think about the people who couldn't return to work without water, like waiters and cooks, and even the people who were turned away at the deli counter.

"I really don't think this had to happen," he said. "I just think we have to be careful on our priorities going forward."

Nearly $17 million of the $130 million budget the City Council adopted a few months ago is dedicated to capital improvement projects.

And $3.2 million of that is dedicated to water-wastewater capital improvement projects. Nearly half will go to rehabilitating utilities in the North Heights subdivision. The other half will go to doing the same for a water tower on Nursery Drive.

This year, the city also did not raise utility rates.

"You have to remember, the work that we put in to prepare those budgets was done back in January, February and March, which was well before the hurricane hit," Reese said.

Kimberly Leggett, a spokeswoman for the Texas Water Development Board, said a backup generator would be eligible for funding under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. It provides low-cost financial assistance for planning, acquisition, design and construction of water infrastructure. It is a loan program with the capacity to lend about $250 million annually.

What the experts say

No one can say how much adding three generators to Victoria's water system will cost - yet.

A 10-kilowatt generator could power a two- to three- bedroom home. You'd be able to switch on a few lights as well as run your fridge and stove, said John Tracy, the director of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University.

When asked whether the city was prepared for an emergency with its 600-kilowatt generator, Tracy said, "that's an interesting question. You'd have to look at the layout and the power demands, but it does seem on the low side."

Tracy thought Victoria's idea to add three generators was sensible. It reminded him of how the Nevada Water Authority did something similar in the early 2000s. That's when some electricity markets were being deregulated, and prices spiked.

"Most of Las Vegas gets their power from hydropower from the Hoover Dam, but I think that due to concerns over increasing demands for power and other issues, they actually put in co-gen natural gas fired generators all along their water supply system and had complete redundancy," he said.

A co-generating natural gas fired generator works without electricity, but its typical function is to add power to a overloaded electric grid, he said.

"When your ability to deliver water goes out for a few hours, most people can make it through that with a little inconvenience, but for as long as Victoria's water system was out, there was some serious costs that come along with that," Tracy said. "I'm not really sure how much the generators would cost, but it seems like it's entirely within the realm of possibility that they would pay for themselves."

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at www.jessicapriest.me.

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