Treatment plant operators have their work cut out for them in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
It started Aug. 13 when a tropical wave off Africa’s west coast combined with a low-pressure area near the Cabo Verde Islands. By the end of the month, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in southeastern Texas, creating a humanitarian and public works crisis, and eventually leaving hundreds of water and wastewater treatment plants inoperative.
The fact that southeastern Texas’ treatment plants are struggling right now isn’t that surprising when you consider that Harvey dumped an estimated 15 trillion gallons of water on the city of Houston. Consider that figure compared to Hurricane Katrina’s 6.5 trillion gallons and you’ll begin to grasp the scope of Houston’s struggle.
As of Sept. 3, the U.S. EPA had contacted 2,300 of the 4,500 drinking water systems in Harvey’s path. Of those, 1,514 were fully operational, 166 had boil-water notices and 50 were shut down. For wastewater plants, more than 800 were described as not fully operational.
With untreated wastewater releases occurring around the greater Houston area, the EPA was working to monitor the facilities reporting spills and provide technical instruction to facilities in flooded areas.
This track map of Hurricane Harvey shows the location of the storm at six-hour intervals as it traveled through the Gulf of Mexico.
A city without tap water
The city of Beaumont, located about 80 miles east of Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, was among the hardest hit in Texas. There were 120,000 people without access to tap water over the course of Labor Day Weekend after the city’s water treatment plant went offline. By Monday, the plant was just starting to get taps turned back on.
Beaumont Police Chief James Singletary told PBS News that some private industries worked with the city’s water department to restore service. “That in itself is an amazing story,” he told PBS. “We’re slowly but surely getting the water restored. But it’s going to be a while before we are going to lift the boil water notice.”
While the water had begun receding from Beaumont’s Neches River, there were still about 3,000 homes Monday that rescue personnel hadn’t gotten to yet. “We have done a bunch of flyovers with the drones and helicopters, and, gosh, it’s just horrific,” Singletary told PBS. “I have lived here my whole life. I have been a cop for my whole adult life and I have never seen anything like this.”
Significant flooding in the city of Conroe, located about 40 miles north of Houston, serves as a good example of Harvey’s enormous reach. TPO magazine spoke to Public Works Director Norman McGuire about wastewater treatment plant struggles in the city.
This isn’t the first time McGuire has seen flooding at the plant in Conroe, but he doesn’t want to revisit the kind of historic event caused by Hurricane Harvey ever again.
“We have received significant damage at our wastewater treatment plan due to a large release from Lake Conroe,” says McGuire, public works director for the city of 82,000. “Our plant went underwater, and it is offline. That is going to be pretty problematic. As soon as the flood waters recede we will get in there immediately and get it up in operation as soon as possible.”
According to the Community Impact newspaper in Texas, the Conroe Council authorized disaster pay for city employees as well as the purchase of up to $250,000 of additional emergency equipment such as pumps and generators to restore wastewater treatment plant operations.
Even though Conroe wasn’t hit quite as hard as the state’s largest city, McGuire says Montgomery County is devastated. “The next couple of weeks will be touchy,” he says. The plant, rated for 12 mgd but with a current flow of 7 mgd, was flooded when the hurricane hit land Aug. 26.
“Our main goal is as soon as we can access our plant is to get up and running. We have large generators on standby,” says McGuire from a public works building that managed to stay dry. “We’ll at least start getting things back in order.”
McGuire says at least 32 inches of rain caused localized street flooding and record levels of water were released from Lake Conroe Dam, forcing the city to evacuate the neighborhood of McDade Estates. But he adds that the plant’s 12 employees are safe and that no fatalities have been reported in the Conroe area.
But even amid the plant being under water, McGuire says the roads that service the plant are still passable; water was running through the tanks and being discharged; lift stations were running; and all residents still had service. The city was working to reroute flow, if need be, to the closest plant in Shenandoah, about 15 minutes south.
McGuire recalls that the plant also flooded in 1994, when a levy around the plant breached. At that time, he says, the plant was up and treating in about a week.
The city will be working overtime 24/7, McGuire says, to bring its treatment plant back up and running. “All the mechanics have to be checked.”
Treatment plant operators throughout the greater Houston area will scramble in the upcoming weeks at all hours for as long as it takes to bring facilities back online. There will be seemingly endless amounts of cleaning and sanitization, followed by costly installations of new or repaired equipment.
Mechanics will be hard at work rehabilitating motors, pumps, HVAC systems and electrical panels.
Getting primary and secondary treatment systems back online could take months too, especially considering the delicate balance of microorganisms needed in clarifier tanks and sludge digesters that can be thrown off by flood waters.
WEF offering support
Eileen O’Neill, executive director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), recently issued a statement to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, including the water professionals responding to devastating flooding in Texas and Louisiana.
“It is during tremendous challenges like this that we see the incredibly tight-knit nature of the water community,” she wrote. “WEF’s members are expressing concern and offering support for colleagues in Texas, Louisiana and throughout the Gulf Coast.
O’Neill said response networks are active, and don’t need additional assistance or resources at this time. “This includes the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), which is in communication with government agencies involved in the response. The Texas WARN is coordinated with Texas State Emergency Management. Impacted utilities are currently receiving necessary assistance.”
WEF officials are following emergency response efforts and are in contact with the Water Environment Association of Texas to help monitor communities.
“WEF encourages members who wish to support those impacted by Hurricane Harvey to consider financial donations to the American Red Cross and other credible charitable organizations,” wrote O’Neill. “As the response and recovery to this unfortunate disaster continues, WEF will continue to monitor the impact on the water sector, assist any way our organization is able, and update our members on the situation.”