To Work by Watercraft

The treatment plant in Lowell, Mich., survived a flood intact. The experience taught the operations team valuable lessons about planning for emergencies.
To Work by Watercraft
Brian VanderMeulen (left) and Mark Mundt.

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Taking a boat to work may sound like fun. Mark Mundt will tell you it was — the first time. During four days last April, Mundt ferried himself and colleague Brian VanderMeulen in a fishing boat across the flooded Grand River to the Lowell (Mich.) Wastewater Treatment Plant (operated by United Water).

They spent several days dealing with flood waters brought on by historic rainfall — 11 inches total during April and 9.5 inches from April 7-16. The rains brought the Grand River in Lowell to record levels: It crested 4.02 feet above flood stage.

Mundt, as project manager, oversaw execution of the emergency plan for the oxidation ditch treatment plant (1.4 mgd design, 4.0 mgd peak). He and VanderMeulen, operations specialist, then fine-tuned the plan for the future based on what they learned.

Lowell, population 4,000, lies about 15 miles east of Grand Rapids at the confluence of the Grand River (the largest river in Michigan) and the Flat River (the treatment plant’s receiving stream).
Mundt, a 36-year industry veteran who has managed the Lowell plant for 24 years, holds a Class A Wastewater License (highest) and several water licenses. He was named 2013 Operations Professional of the Year by the Michigan Water Environment Association. Mundt talked about his experience with the flood and its aftermath in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Please describe the events that led up to the flooding in Lowell.

Mundt: We were hit with a one-two punch. First, we received 6 inches of rain in seven days, so that everything was saturated. When another 3 1/2 inches came two days later, there was no place for it to go except to the nearest waterway, and work its way to the Grand River. On its way to Lake Michigan, it passed through Lowell.

TPO: What warning did you have that there would be extreme flood conditions?

Mundt: There are two types of flooding. Flash flooding comes when you get a ton of rain and immediately everything fills up — there’s an immediate reaction to the storm. In our case, we had a few days’ warning.

Our plant staff reports rainfall to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and we manually take river level readings and input them to the NWS website. These river readings and forecasts are used to make a computer model of the elevations the river is expected to reach. So we knew as soon as we put the information in, and they updated the model, that in about three days the river would be at a record flood stage. It wasn’t just because we got 3.5 inches of rain in Lowell, but because the whole area got 3.5 inches of rain.

TPO: Did you have an emergency plan in place?

Mundt: We did. We had more or less a generic emergency plan that we wrote ourselves, and it did have a flood section. But unless you are really good at doing what-if scenarios, your plan is going to be incomplete. We did learn quite a few things to add to our plan to help make us better next time.

TPO: When you learned the flood was coming, what did you do to prepare?

Mundt: Once we saw that the river was predicted to crest at record levels, we notified the Department of Public Works and advised them to rent several portable pumps so that we could avoid collection system backups. We told the Police Department and city manager what was expected, and we called the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to advise them that we would probably be bypassing on the collection system. We also sealed openings at the main lift station that we expected to be under water.

We arranged for transportation to the plant in my boat, filled out a safe work plan for boating, had extra fuel for our emergency generator delivered to the plant, and forwarded NWS links to our home computers so we wouldn’t need to go to the plant to enter river readings and see elevation predictions.

TPO: Did the flooding directly affect the treatment plant?

Mundt: When we checked our elevation and compared that to the NWS forecast, we knew we would be high and dry, but we also knew there would be a lot of water in the collection system, and the biggest threat was the impact of basement flooding in the community. That’s why my first call was to the DPW to get pumps lined up. In events like this, those items disappear very quickly from rental agencies. Even as quickly as we reacted, we got some of the last ones available.

TPO: How and where were the pumps deployed?

Mundt: We deployed three pumps as close as we could to the main lift station, which we knew would be in the floodwaters. We had to stay far enough away so that the pumps wouldn’t be sitting in flooded areas. The pumps pulled water out of the sanitary sewers and sent it into storm sewer drains or pumped it into ditches. When we let the DEQ know that was going to happen, they were very understanding. They knew it was a historic rain for the area, and many plants had similar issues, although nobody else flooded quite as much as we did.

TPO: How much water had to be bypassed?

Mundt: We estimate that we bypassed just short of 20 million gallons. The plant itself put through about 81 million gallons for the month, which was a record. The water we bypassed was very dilute. SSO reporting requires that we notify the health department, which decides whether we need to do sampling. The city did sample the river above and below the discharges, and the E. coli tests indicated that it was still within swimming quality standards.

TPO: How long did the high water persist?

Mundt: The driveway to the plant was under about five feet of water at one point. At first we used a dump truck to drive through about 18 inches of water. When the water kept rising, we switched to my jon boat for four days. After that we went back to the dump truck for a day, and from then on we were able to drive to the plant in our own vehicles. In three weeks, we were mowing grass that had been under five feet of water.

TPO: Why was there a need for extra generator fuel?

Mundt: We only keep about 250 gallons of diesel fuel on site. We weren’t sure how long the flood would last and whether we would lose power at some point. Our worst-case scenario was that we would need 1,000 gallons, in case we lost power for up to a week.

TPO: Was the plant fully functional during the event?

Mundt: We had no mechanical issues, and we were very happy about that. We do a lot of preventive maintenance here. We use a computerized maintenance management system; we follow it to a tee, and it seems to pay off. We do about 35 preventive work orders a week.

TPO: Did it take any extraordinary measures to keep the plant running?

Mundt: None except for watching to make sure everything was running the way it was supposed to, and it was. In times like that, you hold your breath and hope nothing breaks. We actually went a little over our peak design flow of 4 mgd. We had no bypasses at the plant. We did start to lose some floc, but we stayed in compliance with our NPDES permit.

TPO: Overall, what was the impact of the flooding on the wastewater system and the Lowell community?

Mundt: Besides our record for monthly plant flow, we set records for daily flow at 4.13 million gallons and average daily flow for a month at 2.7 million gallons. The bypass pumping was effective in preventing basement backups, although three basements did experience overflows. Numerous other homes were flooded from the rising river. The flood brought out the best from citizens of the Lowell area. Countless volunteers helped in many ways, including sandbagging, donating food and clothing and staffing shelters.

TPO: What lessons could other plant operating teams learn from your experience?

Mundt: If you don’t have an emergency plan, get one. Make it a real document — don’t just do a perfunctory job and check a box that says, “Yes, we have a plan.” When doing tabletop exercises, really take the time to think it through. What if the water gets to this elevation? Where are our exposures and weakest links? Do we need to get extra chemicals on site? How long could we be stranded and unable to bring in supplies? Do we need to have staff on site 24 hours a day? Do we need to bring in food supplies for them? How will we maintain communications?

TPO: Where can plants look for guidance on emergency planning?

Mundt: I would suggest talking to neighboring facilities, and perhaps talking to your local emergency planning coordinator. I believe the U.S. EPA and the Water Environment Federation also have resources available.

TPO: What specifically did you learn that helped you improve your plan?

Mundt: Our biggest eye-opener was that the electrical switchgear is not at very high elevation. We’re working with the power company to get them to raise it, or eliminate it and wire us directly from a different feed. It doesn’t make any sense that the plant could be high and dry, and yet we lose power because the switchgear has to be shut off.

We’re going to move our portable generator out of the plant — it’s used for emergency power at our lift stations and the drinking water booster pump stations. If we had needed it during the flood, we wouldn’t have been able to get it off the island the plant became. We’re going to have a portable fuel tank placed on site next time and have arranged with a local fuel oil company to have that tank available.

Other things we wrote into the plan are things we actually did — we just want them in writing to make sure we remember next time. They include making the necessary notifications, arranging for a boat, having the DPW secure at least three 1,000 gpm portable pumps, checking chemical inventory and ordering as needed, and working with a team approach.

TPO: What do you mean by working with a team approach?

Mundt: We felt that especially with boating across the water, it was not good to have that be a one-person operation. There was a powerful current all the way around the plant. The flood that covered the driveway took place Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Brian and I both worked that whole time. Typically we would have been off Saturday and Sunday because we have a part-time operator who comes in on weekends. It just made sense to have two of us on site in case something bad happened.

TPO: How would you sum up your experience with this flood?

Mundt: Taking a boat to work was quite unique and fun — the first time. After that it became just another chore. The flood was something to go through once. If it never happens again, that will be fine. As crazy as the weather has been the last few years, I’m not sure it won’t happen again.



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