A Drop of Knowledge: Disaster preparedness training can help water systems plan for new realities

April 7, 2020 | Blog

By: Louis Martin, Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC, the Western RCAP) Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: The following article was written before the current COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, but we are highlighting it because of how important it is for small water and wastewater systems to understand the resources available to them to plan for disasters that may impact their systems and build resilience after. While the future of the coronavirus is uncertain, RCAP’s commitment to rural communities is not. Please visit http://wateroperator.org/coronavirus for critical resources and information during the current circumstances.

Northern California, with its thousands of acres of forests and dozens of small towns tucked away, has become ground zero for wildfires year after year. Rough terrain and isolated communities present unique challenges for firefighting operations. The 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest in California history, causing massive destruction in the town of Paradise. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed more than 5,000 structures in Napa County. With the grim reality that fires will return every year, RCAC and other nonprofit organizations are working to prepare communities when, not if, they face a wildfire threat. RCAC partners with other agencies to hold disaster preparedness and needs assessment trainings all over Northern California.

In the past, the most common scenarios for disasters were smaller in scale. Towns often assumed they could access support and resources from nearby communities. But with fires becoming increasingly large-scale disasters, the focus is moving toward a regional outlook. Brett Gleitsmann, RCAC rural development specialist, points out that disaster preparedness has changed with the new realities.

“I’d say that in the past a community would rely on a backup generator in the next town over, but now we know that might not be enough,” Gleitsmann said. “And also, what happens when fire does overtake your town, how should the water department respond?”

In 2019, RCAC held a training in Redding, California, mere months after the Camp Fire. Sitting north of Chico in nearby Shasta County, the specter of Paradise loomed large over the training. Many attendees were volunteers that had joined the emergency response efforts in Paradise. Others were preparing for potential fires in their own regions.

Electricity-powered wells serve groundwater systems, but power utilities will often cut electricity in wildfire areas, and other times power fails from fire damage. In these cases, the wells cannot be restored. At the same time, local firefighters are rapidly draining water supplies, meaning that tanks will very likely run dry. Severed water connections, which can spill hundreds of gallons per minute, can compound the problem. As Gleitsmann explains it, this creates major problems beyond the obvious one: firefighters need water to fight fire.

“If you can’t keep filling that water tank up, you run into some serious problems. Now you have a vacuum, negative pressure inside the pipelines. Now when the fires pass over, you suck in all this toxic smoke,” Gleitsmann said.

The average household is filled with electronics and construction material. Fire damage turns these normally harmless items into a “chemical mélange,” said Gleitsmann.

“Your refrigerator is burning, your stove is burning, all your electronics, all that plastic. That whole soup of toxic chemicals is in the smoke and gets sucked into the pipelines,” he added.

Beyond contaminated lines, the same vacuum that allows outside air to enter waterlines also makes them more vulnerable to melt under heat. Damaged waterlines aren’t an imminent danger when people are trying to evacuate. But in the fire’s aftermath, the realization sets in: repairing water systems can be more daunting than any other recovery aspect. Ninety percent of Paradise’s 10,500 connections to homes and businesses were lost.

Lack of safe drinking water means that temporary measures must be implemented to make the area livable. Citizens trying to return often need to haul their own water from relatives or neighboring towns. But no one can truly resettle an area without a functional water system. Gleitsmann points out the elephant in the room: who pays the enormous cost of repairing those connections? For the Paradise Irrigation District, the answer is everyone and anyone. Relief organizations like FEMA are leaned on heavily, but even they cannot fully cover the costs.

Luckily, forward-thinking water utilities can prepare for wildfires, and RCAC is helping them. Often, the first step is fleshing out a community’s emergency response plan (ERP). Generic plans should be updated for distinct scenarios. An earthquake, for example, may require a very different set of solutions and partners than a wildfire. Small water systems may not have the personnel or resources to regularly update their ERPs. Other times, ERPs rely heavily on the premise that outside support will be available. There are contacts at the power company, state government, and maybe a local contractor with a backup generator, but they may not account for the possibility that a community could be cut off from the outside world. Utilities should have a plan that doesn’t assume outside support will be available. Gleitsmann cites the issue of backup generators in particular.

“Everyone realized during a major disaster like those big fires, that all the backup generators get swallowed up quickly,” Gleitsmann said.

A utility may have an informal agreement with a local contractor to use their generator. But in emergencies, that generator becomes extremely valuable. Gleitsmann says the only way to be sure a contractor will hold valuable equipment is to have a memorandum of understanding in place, even if it means paying a retainer to a contractor, or even better, purchasing your own generator if possible. Fast-moving fires like the Camp Fire closed off access to Paradise within hours of being reported. Within six hours, the town had been enveloped and all roads in were shut down. For utilities expecting outside help, the window of access did not stay open for long.

In the fires’ aftermath, utilities are becoming more resilient each season. Hard lessons give way to innovation in how small utilities prepare for disaster. Lake County, California has 89 public water systems, many of them very small. The 2015 Valley Fire caused widespread destruction in the county, including the loss of small water utilities. Now, a group of Lake County public utilities have banded together and meet quarterly to discuss readiness and emergency response plans for their systems. They have split Lake County into three zones and designated liaisons for each. The group adopted a standard ERP template so every utility can be familiar with neighboring plans. They are also sharing more information than ever before: backup generator training, water system shutdown and startup procedures and even reviewing the impact of last summer’s planned power outages. John Hamner, Callayomi Water District General Manager and RCAC rural development specialist, says that Lake County is more prepared than any previous year.

“The biggest plus that we’ve done here is we’ve organized as public water systems. We just met again last month because of the PSPS [Public Safety Power Shutoff] … we feel that we’re ready,” Hamner said.

If you are interested in emergency and disaster response planning, RCAC and the other five RCAP partners hold trainings. We are in the process of offering online trainings in the near-term, given the COVID-19 outbreak. You can see future RCAC trainings at https://www.rcac.org/trainings/ and trainings across the RCAP Network at https://www.rcap.org/training/.