Water Management in Extreme Storm Events

 

By Kris Polly

For water managers, the calm before the storm is a time for preparation. In 2017, the water and wastewater agencies of southern Texas were put to the test by Hurricane Harvey. Some of them experienced 20,000-year flood levels. It is no surprise that those agencies helped to ensure that drinking water and wastewater services continued at a time when so many individuals and families lost so much.

In this issue of Municipal Water Leader magazine, we speak to managers at the Gulf Coast Authority (GCA), Houston Water, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) about their respective experiences during the storm and the policies that govern the emergency management of water resources. Their collective responses reflect the professionalism and leadership of organizations well prepared for potentially catastrophic events.

The Gulf Coast Authority provides industrial and municipal treatment services to companies and communities along the Gulf Coast south of Houston. Harvey inundated GCA’s service area, dumping several feet of rain on its facilities and customers. GCA Chief Technical Officer Gordon Peterson explained that while the storm “provided unique challenges that GCA had not experienced before . . . by adapting our [emergency] plan to meet the storm’s characteristics, we were able to keep our personnel safe and minimize damages.”

GCA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Free highlighted the need for ongoing communication with local, state, and federal emergency management agencies, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). She said, “It is important to talk with FEMA about flood mitigation funding. FEMA wants to sponsor flood mitigation projects, so that the next time something like this happens, the damages aren’t as severe.”

Houston Water’s Drinking Water Operations (DWO) provides water to the fourth-largest city in the United States. It’s a big job. As Harvey hit, the DWO staff was working 24/7 to make sure its 4 million customers had drinking water. Assistant Senior Director of Houston Water's DWO Drew Molly shared his story of how DWO’s efforts “helped our communities endure the storm and kept a difficult situation from becoming worse.”

The SJRA's Woodlands Division operates and maintains 3 regional wastewater treatment plants, a wastewater conveyance system with 30 lift stations, a regional water system with 5 drinking water plants, 38 water wells, multiple storage tanks, and miles and miles of water distribution lines. By investing in its people and planning ahead, SJRA-Woodlands successfully weathered the storm to provide service to the 100,000 residents of The Woodlands.

SJRA General Manager Jace Houston spoke with pride, “The system performed like a champ.” The reason for that, according to SJRA-Woodlands Manager Chris Meeks, was his maintenance team. “We can get parts and pieces, but good people are hard to find.” SJRA has invested in good people.

In addition to on-the-ground reports, we also talk big-picture water resources emergency management planning with Sean Smith, principal hydrologic and hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps in Washington, DC. Mr. Smith discusses the role of the Army Corps during storm events and how it coordinates with local agencies to protect communities.

Public safety is the top priority for the Army Corps. Mr. Smith explained, “It is our number one mission. Proactive engagement with the local entities in understanding their roles and responsibilities with regard to public health and safety is also something we work collectively to bolster, with the intent of continual improvement in how we work together.”

Water managers are true professionals. They are committed to public safety above all else and are dedicated to bringing drinking water and wastewater services even in the most dire conditions. For that, we thank them.

 

Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Municipal Water Leader magazine and president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at Kris.Polly@waterstrategies.com.

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