Water Plant Operators Save Flood-Ravaged Town

Water Plant Operators Save Flood-Ravaged Town
Operators work to isolate a zone in order to lift the boil water order.

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The small town of High River is among flood-ravaged communities in Alberta still recovering after what is being called Canada’s costliest natural disaster — some estimate $6 billion in damages.  

Media and residents have labeled operators at the High River water treatment facility heroes for their selfless efforts on June 20, 2013, to keep water flowing and monitored during the flood. 

The High River system is supplied by 12 shallow wells and just one 3-million-gallon storage reservoir. The regional treatment plant serves 13,000, including a few surrounding municipalities and a large meatpacking facility. 

“When the water came, it came really hard and fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected,” says Jason Craigie, manager of operations with the Town of High River. “It breeched the one berm and flooded out all the wells. We could not bring water into the plant because our filters were not able to handle the turbidity spikes. As the water breeched into George Lane Park, next to the river, it started coming toward the plant.” 

Chad Moore, treatment facility supervisor, was out tending to the town’s main lift station — one of 12. When floodwaters overtook that lift station, he decided it was time to head back to the plant — he got a ride with a heavy hauler whose truck was able to wade through the high waters. Local vacuum truck companies began pumping out overwhelmed lift stations, and staff members built a berm around the water plant, unsure if it would hold. 

As the town was evacuated, Moore and operator Colin Andrews made an eleventh-hour decision to hunker down at the water plant as the Highwood River crested. They were stuck there for nearly 30 hours until the flood receded and they could start cleanup.  

Stay put

When Moore returned to the plant, the facility couldn’t properly treat water because turbidity risks were too high. “We were purely operating off the reservoir,” he says. During peak flooding, they were losing about 1,000 gpm in the distribution system. “We were basically feeding leaks with the last of the potable water.” 

Reducing pressure was the only option to save the entire system. “We reduced the pressure going out of the plant from 65 psi to 40 psi, so the leaks weren’t so severe,” Moore says. “We dropped the leaks to 700-800 gpm. That gave us a little more time to run off the reservoir.” 

Moore and Andrews got word out to residents and industrial users that water could not be withdrawn. “The call was made to upper management that we would have to shut our outside consumers off,” Moore says.

Craigie couldn’t agree more with their decision. “I have no doubt that without turning the pressure down we would have exhausted our reservoir and we probably would have cavitated all our high-lift pumps,” he says.

Lending a hand 

When turbidity levels got too high, the plant shut down and stopped treatment. “With the outfall under floodwaters, we could not backwash to clean the filter media, so all we could do was wait until the river receded,” Moore says. “As painful as it was to watch the reservoir level drop lower and lower, we had to start bringing raw water into the plant or we would run the risk of de-pressurizing the distribution system. We were forced to try treating the turbid raw water.” 

When a boil water advisory was ordered for the town by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Craigie was grateful for the agency’s help. “They came on day two and guided us through,” he says. “They never micromanaged; it was just good to have their input.” 

If the flooded plant and damaged distribution system weren’t enough, within 24 hours Moore and Andrews lost all communications. “We were left in the plant to decide what was going to happen,” Moore says. “Smartphones and radios didn’t work, but surprisingly an old analog flip phone maintained a weak signal. The only thing going through my mind was ‘We need to maintain potability.’ ” They were both were relieved once the river crested and floodwaters receded. 

Five of the town’s 12 lift stations were devastated by the flood. Temporary systems are still in place.

Lessons learned

To date, and after major air scouring and raw water analyses, the water treatment plant is back up and running. “We are in control of our system again,” Craigie says. “We’ve had the professionals in to assess all our wells. We’ve pulled everything, done shock chlorination and flushed everything. We’ve done extensive work on our filter media to get the silt out and get those back functioning at 100 percent. We’re good.” 

For facilities in flood-prone areas, he recommends taking an overview of plant operations and systems. “I suggest going over all emergency response plans. Ensure they’re up to date and maybe even run a couple practice tests.” 

The widespread devastation in High River remains, but plant staff members have learned from the flood learning. “Talk to local contractors,” Craigie says. “If you suspect high-water events, talk to vacuum, hydroexcavation and pump truck companies so those guys are on standby for you. And lean on your governing body. They’re the experts, and they have more resources than any municipality. Also, make sure your electrician is close.” 

Be prepared

Moore advises facilities to plan for disasters long before they happen. “When you prepare for the worst, expect the worst,” he says. “Don’t build a plant for the quality of water, build it for the worst case scenario.” He notes that the High River facility was built to handle high-quality raw water, not take in mass loading of turbidity. 

Moore also warns again operator burnout for minimally staffed facilities during emergencies. “Our facility runs on a total of three certified operators in the plant,” he says. “When the flooding happened, I learned how quickly an operator can burn out from work mass hours. We weren’t prepared because we had no extra hands to bring in to relieve the operators running 24-hour shifts.” He says he will be prepared next time with a plan for other municipalities to lend assistance.   

Craigie modestly credits the community for helping the plant survive. “We’ve worked diligently, and we pretty much just did our jobs under different circumstances,” he says. “We had a lot of support from the province and other municipal managers.” 

Residents who were locked out of their town for a week were angry with the plant and its operators at first, says Craigie, but that died down as they learned of staff members’ heroics. 

“What makes these guys heroes is that they chose to go into the plant as everybody was leaving,” Craigie says. “They wanted to be there to watch the monitors for turbidity, and they had to drop the pressure to ensure our distribution system didn’t lose pressure. And we didn’t want to lose the level in the reservoir needed for fire protection.” 

Craigie is beyond thankful for the way Moore and Andrews handled the disaster. “These guys went into the water as we capped off the berm and they chose to put their families on hold and stay in the plant.”


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