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People helping people: Water systems recognized for their assistance during Hurricane Harvey

Aug. 15, 2018 – TCEQ honors systems at TCEQ Public Drinking Water Conference

Workers from Jonah SUD repair pipelines near Holiday Beach after Hurricane Harvey.
Workers from Jonah SUD repair pipelines near Holiday Beach after Hurricane Harvey.
Honorees and other attendees take part in the Public Drinking Water Conference.
Honorees and other attendees take part in the Public Drinking Water Conference.

When Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas communities with record-shattering rainfall, sewage systems overflowed. Pump stations were inundated with floodwater. Water lines were leaking, and debris was everywhere. This left many Texans without basic services that many take for granted. Water systems and other public utilities along the Gulf Coast faced the challenge of restoring these services, even while their own personnel dealt with the effects of the storm.

So in a true case of neighbors helping neighbors, water systems from elsewhere in the state mobilized their own resources to assist affected communities in bringing over-run systems back online. They sent personnel and equipment to clear debris, pump out floodwater, and repair facilities.

On Aug. 7, TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann presented the systems with certificates of appreciation to kick off the TCEQ’s annual Public Drinking Water Conference in Austin.

“If neighbors hadn’t helped their neighbors the way they did during Hurricane Harvey, Texas would not have survived this disaster as well as we did. And it’s a tribute to TXWARN’s partner facilities that we got our public services back up as fast as we did,” said Niermann.

Representatives of ten different utilities from around the state received certificates of appreciation from TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann during the annual Public Drinking Water Conference on Aug. 7, 2018.
Representatives of ten different utilities from around the state received certificates of appreciation from TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann during the annual Public Drinking Water Conference on Aug. 7, 2018.

Who helped

San Antonio Water System sent resources to the Rockport and Port Aransas area, providing assistance to Nueces County Water Control and Improvement District 4. Approximately 100 employees helped get drinking water pump stations and wastewater lift stations up and running. They also repaired water line leaks and restored communications services.

A tattered, windblown American flag stands defiantly amid the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
A tattered, windblown American flag stands defiantly amid the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
A loader is used to clear debris from Hurricane Harvey near Port Aransas.
A loader is used to clear debris from Hurricane Harvey near Port Aransas.

Employees from the city of Austin made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Rockport and moved debris to reach and repair damaged infrastructure. They restored power to pumps and lift stations, located buried water meters, and repaired leaks.

The Jonah Special Utility District brought their trucks and a backhoe more than 200 miles to Holiday Beach in Aransas County to repair and replace service lines. The utility also provided generators to the Mauriceville wastewater plant to repair pumps.

The city of Corpus Christi allowed local water haulers to fill up water transport trucks free of charge, and provided generators to power lift stations, treatment plants, and critical infrastructure. The city also allowed the communities of Goliad, San Patricio, Violet, and Taft the use of its laboratory for free bacteriological testing of water samples.

When a high school that was being used as a first responders’ shelter didn’t have sanitary sewer service, the city of Rowlett, near Dallas, sent a crew to restore service. The crew also restored water and sewer service to homes in the Orange and Port Arthur areas.

Port Arthur, Brazoria, and Liberty received assistance from the Trinity River Authority. Crews cleared debris from wastewater lift stations and cleared floodwaters from water plants and fixed control systems.

The city of Balch Springs, also near Dallas, brought its 10-person team, spent 10 days removing debris in Lake Jackson and Vidor, and ran pumps that dewatered the flooded area so repairs could be made.

The McAllen public utility headed more than 200 miles to the North to ensure that a lift station was repaired in Austwell, and leaking water lines were fixed in Aransas Pass and Fulton. The team also flushed the water lines in the Aransas Pass distribution system.

The cities of Denton and Carrolton teamed up to drive more than 450 miles to help Refugio, Lake Jackson, and Brazoria. In Refugio, they assessed the water system for low pressure and repaired leaks. In Brazoria, they removed floodwater and restored service at the wastewater treatment plant. In Lake Jackson, the Denton/Carrolton team cleared blocked sewer mains and a drainage channel.

Gathering at the Public Drinking Water Conference

The venue for the certificate presentation was especially fitting since many of the attendees at the Public Drinking Water Conference were directly affected by the hurricane. The annual conference is an opportunity for system operators from throughout the state to gather to network, share ideas, and learn.

TCEQ speaker Clayton Nicolardi gives his presentation on day one of the Public Drinking Water Conference.
TCEQ speaker Clayton Nicolardi gives his presentation on day one of the Public Drinking Water Conference.
Donald Hunter of the TCEQ gives a class during the Public Drinking Water Conference.
Donald Hunter of the TCEQ gives a class during the Public Drinking Water Conference.

During the two full days of classes and seminars, water system operators, and those in related jobs, took classes on topics as varied as chemical monitoring, radionuclide compliance, and mitigation of disinfection byproducts. Attendees also took classes to learn about the latest rule updates from the TCEQ, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Several classes also qualify for continuing education credits, so an attendee can keep his or her water operator’s license current.

TCEQ Environmental Engineer Clayton Nicolardi, gave a talk entitled “Disaster Readiness and Lessons Learned,” which provided information on how water systems can best prepare for disasters like Hurricane Harvey. The session included subjects like establishing relationships with all levels of authorities and keeping open lines of communication among all involved parties.

Nicolardi also provided technical assistance at the conference for those water system operators who needed one-on-one discussions on any of the conference topics.

“One of the things I enjoy the most in my job is to work with the people who are the ‘boots on the ground,’ and the people who are really making a difference,” Nicolardi said of the conference. “It’s a good way to network and to bring us together, knowing that we have the same goal in mind, which is to protect public health.”

According to conference organizers, the conference continues to be a success. L’Oreal Stepney is deputy director of the TCEQ’s Office of Water, and said, “The conference was very well attended by more than 900 Public Water System representatives.  It is a great opportunity for TCEQ staff to provide training and to talk one-on-one with utilities in the state.”

Keep an eye on the Public Drinking Water Conference webpage for information about next year’s conference.

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All photos TCEQ.