How To Drought Proof Your Water Treatment Plant

Drought is becoming less of a crisis and more of a recurring event. Has your plant made drought plans?
How To Drought Proof Your Water Treatment Plant
In Wichita Falls, Texas, severe drought has affected potable water supplies. At Lake Arrowhead State Park, the public fishing pier stands about 150 feet from the edge of the lake. Photo credit: Jimmy Alford

Drought seems to be everywhere. This year, it’s California and Texas. Last year, the middle of the country, as far east as Indiana. Next year, who knows?

“Going forward,” says Greg Fisher of Denver Water, “we’re seeing drought as less of a crisis, and more as a recurring event.”

What can water system managers do to prepare for drought and mitigate its affect? The solutions are many and varied, depending on the region of the country, experience with drought, and size and type of water management system.

But one thing is common — having a plan is critical to drought survival.

Plan ahead to avoid crisis
“Planning is the best way to deal with drought or any disaster,” says Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “The least prepared suffer the worst consequences.”

Fuchs adds that a good plan involves more than simply response to drought: If your plan only covers response, you’ll be in crisis mode before you do anything. Effective planning prepares a plant and community ahead of time.

Columbus, Ohio, is doing just that. According to Richard Westerfield, administrator of the Columbus Water Division, serious drought conditions in the past have driven current planning, which includes the citywide GreenSpot water conservation program. Homeowners and businesses commit to taking green actions, including buying water-saving household appliances and using efficient lawn and water gardening.

The city has also completed a $120 million reservoir that could add about 20 mgd capacity to the utility’s water supply in an emergency.

“Our plan takes a comprehensive look at our total water resources, and makes recommendations as we move ahead. The additional reservoir was one of those recommendations,” Westerfield says.

At the South Coast Water District south of Los Angeles, Calif., water production supervisor Steve Dishon ticks off several steps that will help his system fulfill water needs in the future.

About three-quarters of the water used by the district is imported from the Colorado River and northern California.

“Drought, climate change, population growth, changing government policies and ecosystem challenges are all working to decrease these imported water supplies and to make them unreliable and uncertain,” according to the district’s website.

In response, South Coast Water now operates a groundwater recovery facility that treats about 1.7 mgd of brackish groundwater, returning it to high-quality water that can be used in the community’s potable water supply.

In addition, the district is participating in a proposed ocean water desalination project, possibly supplying 30 percent of the necessary water supply in the future. And — like Columbus — South Coast is engages its customers in water conservation programs.

In Denver, Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning, says that while Denver Water is not experiencing water shortages right now, he knows things can change quickly. The Denver area experienced near record drought, followed by very wet periods, then fires and floods — all in one year.

“We learned that things can change quickly,” Fisher says, “and that most likely will be part of our reality going forward. Weather events will be more extreme, swings will be more prevalent in the future. We need to be more adaptive, more nimble.”

He recommends utilities take a command structure approach, even with something as slow-moving as drought.

Develop your safety net
“Typically, you’d see a command structure for natural disasters like hurricanes, but it really helps us communicate with people outside out area — other counties, other water providers.”

As an example, he points to a previous time when individual entities in the Denver metro area all had different and quite confusing watering restrictions. Through communication, watering days were made as common as possible.

“We found that some people didn’t even know who their provider was,” he recalls.

Locate and nurture new water sources, maintain emergency supplies if possible, preach water conservation, use technology and, above all, have a plan that anticipates drought, even if your area has never experienced one in the past.

“In case of drought, we always go back to the objectives of the plan,” Fisher says. “Water for health and safety first, and if at all possible, avoiding any negative economic impact.”



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