When Disaster Disrupts a Conveyance System

Jan. 17, 2018

The US experienced an historic number of weather and climate events in 2017—16 different disasters with damages over a billion dollars, according to NOAA. These events included one drought, two floods, one freeze, eight severe storms, three tropical cyclones, and one wildfire that together resulted in the deaths of 362 people.  

My community in Santa Barbara County, CA, was impacted in December by the Thomas Fire and more recently, by the Montecito Mudslides. The effects of these disasters have made each of us pause and reevaluate what we consider primary—loved ones and essential things like water, food, and electricity. It has also inspired us to reconsider elemental plans and processes such as doing business without communications infrastructure, evacuation routes, emergency supplies, and backup power.

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And as with any disaster, there are lessons that emerge from the aftermath. I share the following scenario with the goal of learning how other organizations handle devastating events such as this, and to gather your insight as to how we can rebuild as a more resilient community.

On January 9, when the storm hit its peak around 3 a.m., creeks swelled so much that they destroyed the primary distribution water main serving Montecito. This water main connects all of the regional reservoirs that are stationed along a high elevation point in the district to facilitate gravity flow. In total, the reservoirs hold about 12 million gallons of water, and two were closed.

The district uses a SCADA system to shut valves when needed. However, it doesn’t work without power. The district has backup power, but those generators are not automated and could not come on without a manual start. Mud and debris had covered every road and access point.

Nick Turner, general manager for Montecito Water District, told Noozhawks Giana Magnoli, “There is an automatic system, SCADA, but with the power off and no way to access the site to get generators up and running, SCADA doesn’t work without power.”

Then the reservoirs drained, sending an estimated 8 to 9 million gallons to the Pacific Ocean by way of creeks, and contributing to an already deadly flood event.

As the utility works to restore the system, and awaits repairs to the South Coast Conduit that connects to its primary water sources, the 4,500 customers it services must do with very limited water resources. Turner told Noozhawk that there is “very little water supply” since the district lost most of its stored water, has reduced deliveries from lake sources, and received no water from the South Coast Conduit. This hardship on the heels of a devastating event makes one wonder: what could have been done differently?

How has your organization responded in flood scenarios? What emergency plans and procedures do you have in place?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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