Treatment Plant Operators: The Unsung Heroes of California's Carr Fire

California water treatment operators continue to struggle after seventh-largest wildfire in state history

Treatment Plant Operators: The Unsung Heroes of California's Carr Fire

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Water treatment plant operators are always on the job, so to speak, but this summer many of them went above and beyond in their efforts to help fight the devastating Carr Fire.

According to Cal Fire, the blaze ravaged the small communities of Shasta and Keswick before jumping the Sacramento River and burning houses on the outskirts of Redding — a city of 95,000 people 120 miles south of the California-Oregon border.

The late July fire, which impacted Shasta and Trinity counties, burned 229,651 acres, destroyed more than 1,600 homes and claimed the lives of eight people. Despite all the tragedy and sadness surrounding the seventh largest fire in California history, there were some unsung heroes during and after the fire: The region’s water treatment plant operators and water resource engineers.

Keeping services online

As the fire closed in, several of the region’s treatment plant operators started dousing their buildings with water, according to Richard Hinrichs, chief of the Northern California Section of the State Water Resources Control Board. “This was to provide continuation of operations and pressure to fight the fires. The operators were staying on duty.”

Fire surrounding Buckeye Water Treatment Plant in Redding, California. (Photo by Richard Hinrichs of the State Water Resources Control Board)
Fire surrounding Buckeye Water Treatment Plant in Redding, California. (Photo by Richard Hinrichs of the State Water Resources Control Board)

According to the local newspaper, the Record Searchlight, during the first week of the fire, treatment plants struggled to retain water pressure in the face of massive demand and widespread leakage from destroyed structures. Despite the struggle, and surrounded by fire, they kept water services online in the city of Redding’s 14 mgd Buckeye plant west of town, and Shasta Community Services District’s 2 mgs plant. Redding’s second treatment plant, known as the Foothill plant (24 mgd) was out of harm’s way.

The city of Redding set up sprinklers to protect their infrastructure,” says Katie Connaughton, water resource control engineer with the State Water Resources Control Board. There was no major damage to the treatment plants.

A sprinkler setup protecting Buckeye Water Treatment Plant in Redding, California. (Photo by Richard Hinrichs of the State Water Resources Control Board)
A sprinkler setup protecting Buckeye Water Treatment Plant in Redding, California. (Photo by Richard Hinrichs of the State Water Resources Control Board)

City of Redding Water Utility Manager Josh Watkins says both plants were impacted by fire, but for different reasons. “Buckeye is a couple miles west of town, and it’s pretty rural. We’re surrounded by a national forest, and there’s fire around us every summer.”

The area around the Buckeye plant was completely burned, and Pacific Gas and Electric shut off power to that area. “We have a backup diesel generator that allowed us to continue to run that plant,” says Watkins. “We were dousing it with water, and we have pretty good defensible space around that plant.

“As a precaution, our treatment supervisor Conrad Tona and one to two operators went out and set up a sprinkler on our chlorine building, and then they evacuated the area (and ran the plant remotely). You just don’t know what to expect.”

Outside Redding is the 40 mgd Clear Creek CSD Treatment Plant, and the eave of that plant’s roof caught fire before being quickly extinguished by Redding water treatment operators. Watkins says it’s likely that quick response saved the plant from further damage.

Nearby Keswick — a small water district with an in-line direct filtration plant adjacent to Buckeye water plant — lost an estimated 90 percent of its customers, according to Hinrichs. The plant may need to consolidate with Shasta Community Services District for service.

Safeguarding water supplies

Now that the fire is 100 percent contained, the hard work of keeping water supplies safe has kicked in. Redding’s Buckeye Plant takes its water from nearby Whiskeytown Lake, while the city’s Foothill plant draws surface water from the Sacramento River. Without undergrowth, erosion during rainfall will wash ash, metals and other contaminants into waterways.

“We are trying to predict and look into changes in the system right now,” says Hinrichs. We’re planning for the worst. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Whiskeytown Lake and Sacramento River. The entire Whiskeytown watershed burnt.”

Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, told local media the board is concerned about getting up into the foothills and start looking at those tributaries to the Sacramento River, where most of the erosion will likely occur.

“One of the things we always say is if the plants get into a problem situation because of unusual runoff, sediment, or the pH is adversely affected, no operator should be so proud that they are afraid of shutting the plant off if one or more options exist,” says Hinrichs. The city of Redding has groundwater sources and other sources, so there would be other options if surface water is contaminated with sediment.

And since the water quality is normally so high, Watkins says the region doesn’t have the facilities to treat sludge or sediment load.

The Buckeye plant has sediment basins, but no sludge removal equipment. “Once it starts raining, everything will change,” says Watkins, referring to the ravaged Whiskeytown Lake.

Most water utilities may have to change coagulants to balance the pH in the water. And Hinrichs says plants can slow down filtration rates to make water more treatable.

As time goes on and rains come, Watkins says the bigger issue — even bigger than fighting the fire — is treating the water.

“We are concerned about it,” he says. “We also have groundwater wells on the southeast part of our service area. We’re talking about putting in a temporary ground station to pump water into pressure stations.” It’s not ideal, he adds, but it would only be temporary.

While the plants always have wells running, they rely on about 70 percent surface water and 30 percent groundwater. “Our surface water is traditionally the better quality,” says Watkins. “We’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had to just use groundwater.”

He notes that a capital project is underway to build what they’re calling the Cypress Pump Station (7-8 mgd). With any luck, that will be up and running in several months.

“It might be a good idea in the event you don’t have your Foothill treatment plant,” Watkins says. “That’s for the scenario in winter — lower demand and Sacramento River is turbid and Whiskeytown is all ash.”

Redding also has ties with other districts, like Shasta CSD. “We’re working with them to make sure we’re ready if they can’t run their plants at all.”

Now it’s just a matter of time to see how things shake out after falling ash turns to rain. It’s a challenge either way.

“We’ve never seen anything like this Carr fire that has affected, and will affect, us this dramatically,” says Hinrichs. 

A nighttime image of the fire around Buckeye Water Treatment Plant. (Photo by Richard Hinrichs of the State Water Resources Control Board)
A nighttime image of the fire around Buckeye Water Treatment Plant. (Photo by Richard Hinrichs of the State Water Resources Control Board)


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