Water providers prepare for the worst, respond like the best in the face of natural and manmade disasters


By Michael Deane

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. You might have heard that advice from a parent growing up, or maybe a teacher or coach. When it comes to safe, clean water – essential to life – there’s nothing more important than preparing for the worst.

More needs to be done to replace the nation’s aging water infrastructure and to mitigate threats to the integrity of a community’s water system due to natural or manmade causes.

Since every part of our society is water-dependent, it is absolutely essential that water utility operators have made preparations for any possible scenario. Whether it’s the snowstorm of the century or a widespread power outage, it’s important to have a plan in place to protect the health and safety of customers. On opposite ends of the country, two private water companies have recently demonstrated exemplary performance in times of crisis.

Middlesex Water, with customers primarily in New Jersey and Delaware, often finds itself in the path of severe weather coming up the Atlantic coast. Preparation includes strategic planning sessions, regular ongoing communication with local emergency management, fire and health officials and municipalities throughout the year, and frequent customer education on everything from hurricane preparedness, protecting against frozen pipes to staying hydrated in soaring temperatures.

Middlesex’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Bernadette Sohler, explained their philosophy. “We are responsible for providing service 24/7, 365 days a year,” Sohler said. “So even in two feet of snow, on a major holiday or in a brutal heatwave, our customers can be confident that our Operators are at their posts ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of water and wastewater service. We conduct regular operations exercises to model potential scenarios and to establish points of contact, procedures, communications and overall coordination so that when a weather or emergency event does arise we are better prepared to respond and mobilize as a team for the benefit of our customers.”

This level of preparation was particularly timely during Hurricane Sandy, when Middlesex faced the challenge of providing service to a population of 400,000 amidst multi-state power outages.  Faced with loss of power over an extended period, the Company fortunately was ready with standby power generation designed for such events. and actively leveraged local networks, its website and social media to keep customers informed.  Middlesex partnered with entities in New Jersey and Delaware to obtain scarce fuel supplies to keep facilities running in the aftermath of one of the most destructive storms in history in the Northeast.

Nearly 3,000 miles away, in June 2016, California Water Service (Cal Water) coped with an unprecedented fire in Kern County, California, where 300 homes were destroyed – the majority of which belonged to Cal Water customers. The fire caused a power outage across the service area, which in turn impacted Cal Water’s operations. The company mobilized crews from across the state to assist in response efforts, and in just 48 hours the affected facilities were up and running again.

“Thanks to our ability to bring in resources from across California, and the experience and professionalism of our employees, we were able to get our systems back up and running in short order after power was lost,” said Chris Whitley, the Local Manager of Cal Water’s Kern River Valley service area.

Cal Water also worked with the entire community – not just its customers – to distribute bottled water from an adjacent service district, and share timely information about the unfolding crisis and its impact on critical services. They communicated frequently and actively on social media, and participated in press conferences with city officials, first responders and community partners to distribute timely information throughout the event.

But the work doesn’t stop once the crisis is over and services are stabilized community-wide. As Middlesex’s Sohler notes, “Every event is different with unique circumstances so our team conducts post-event operations assessments and risk management meetings to learn how we can improve and refine our plan to enhance our response and resiliency efforts. This approach employed on all levels of disasters help us to be disciplined, focused and consistent in our approach.”

Water professionals understand the absolute necessity of being prepared for a disaster, but they also understand the importance of the day-to-day maintenance of their water systems. This is a tall order when one considers the fact that, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 240,000 water main failures each year costing more than $3 billion annually, excluding the cost of equipment, traffic disruptions, and lost work time.

Until disaster strikes, it’s not surprising most Americans take for granted the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week availability of clean, safe drinking water. But every day water professionals across the nation work tirelessly to maintain the integrity of an invisible and complex network of pipes, pumps, valves and tanks to ensure water systems are reliable for the communities they serve. 


Michael Deane is the executive director of the National Association of Water Companies. 


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