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When Disaster Disrupts a Conveyance System

Emergency plans and procedures can save water and lives.

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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.

Costs are rising, supplies are dwindling and the clock is ticking. Explore solutions and new ways to collaborate by joining your colleagues in San Diego January 22-23, 2019 at the Western Water Summit. Click here for details

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? WE_bug_web

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  1. Laura, sorry to hear that your community was hit by these disasters – I hope your home and area survived and are ok? Boy, I would hate to have a job with any Chamber having to attract new people to the state – tough sell. About the only disaster CA does not have are hurricanes… Options following fires – to almost immediately arieal reseed the burned areas with approved natives, or if impossible – a solid, fast growing annual that can be killed and reseeded into in the spring? For emergency water and lawn water – push every home and business to add rainwater harvesting tanks to serve as emergency water supplies and normally, to irrigate trees, beds and shrubs with drip irrigation systems.

  2. Installation of auto valves that shut when irregularly high flows are present. Use of sigma 6 principles could be used to set up the baseline for shut off parameters. This could also save water in the event of smaller leaks. Also; the employment of a back up power supply for critical equipment and a ROCC (remote operations control center) where feasible.

  3. Laura, in this Montecito event of which you speak, water mains were ripped open and debris were exposed. The mains were contaminated internally. To now deal with this, the water district will super-chlorinate the system for about a week to 10 days. Will this be effective? Unfortunately as well documented, this may not be enough. There will be biofilms developing in the piping. That’s assuming that there were not already biofilms. These will be driven by the flow into home point of use (POU) water quality control devices. These will likely see those systems contaminated and thus acting as reservoirs for the dispersal of pathogens, many of which are now multi-drug resistant. The people will most likely not know this and thus may be drinking tainted water. Readers may ask, is this likely? If one goes to the discussions within in the agricultural sector on this topic where biofilm tainted water containing pathogens impacts profits, this topic is well covered and very real.
    As the degree of virulence and drug resistance is going up nationally, not down. This is seen in the universe of circulating community acquired infectious disease. These bugs are increasingly found in drinking water. This, along with xenobiotics now being introduced into the nation’s water supply has as a risk factor vastly outstripped the capacity of the now antiquated water quality controls and standards to keep up.
    For example, at the 2006 at the Environmental Law Conference in Yosemite, various papers were delivered. Session # 27 was to contain some interesting insight into this area of non-action by regulators. Non-action is a term relating to the behavior of regulators when they know that a problem exists but that problem cannot be dealt with for mainly political reasons. In the case of the paper delivered in Yosemite, the topic was pharmaceuticals in groundwater. Of particular interest was the analysis of the Safe Drinking Water Act by one of the US/EPA drinking water toxicologists. His delivered paper ended with the following: “Bottom line on almost all of the “emerging” contaminants that have attracted attention: It will be a long time, if ever, before they are regulated under the SDWA.”
    Once these filters are contaminated, they have to be pulled out and replaced to do it right. That could be expensive. As an example—– One of the distillation units making sterile water in one of our local chain pharmacies became contaminated and thus the distilled sterile water that it was thought to be producing was contaminated. This was hooked into the City’s water system. They (the pharmacy) did not know this, it was “sterile” water was it not? One of the SBCC students taking the medical micro bio series was working part time at the pharmacy and just for grins, when the class was running tests on local water, he brought in a sample. It tested for high levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This was the “sterile” water that the pharmacists used for mixing cold medicines for kids. Because finding drug-resistant bacteria in something that should have been sterile, it was presumed that the student had contaminated the sample and because of the seriousness of the issue the professor re-ran several tests. The student had not contaminated the sample. Looking more, another water system turned up contaminated.

    This is very common, but people do not realize this. So people assume that their systems are making clean water. Knowing this and the broken pipes, there is a need for review of the system but those running the water district may not consider this. The water can meet state standards, be legal, but not safe. It is complex and this situation merely ratchets up the risk.

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