Days without power and below-freezing temperatures brought harrowing stories of survival in Texas last week. Coastsiders are no stranger to blackouts, especially during fire season when planned outages have become commonplace. But it wasn’t just the outages that plagued Texans — failing water systems have deepened the crisis.
Local water and sewer providers say they’re ready for sustained outages and other emergencies.
Leaders at North Coast County Water District, Montara Water and Sanitary District and Coastside County Water District — which separately provide water from Pacifica through Half Moon Bay — said each of their systems is supported by backup generators that run on diesel regardless of local power availability.
In Pacifica, all four of NCCWD’s main pump stations are tested regularly and supported by generators, General Manager Adrianne Carr said. And NCCWD staff are currently working to update the district’s emergency response plan in line with federal regulations.
“We’re always getting more and more prepared for emergencies,” Carr said. “Resiliency is top of mind for all of our staff. … These people are the experts and really care about making sure our water system is going to function in case of an emergency.”
In the case of extreme cold, such as below-freezing temperatures reported last week in normally temperate Texas, Carr and MWSD General Manager Clemens Heldmaier said their systems won’t fail. The bigger concern is pipes that run in and out of homes, which are often above-ground, not insulated and made of plastic, which is not as crack-proof as copper. Heldmaier said the best defense is for homeowners to wrap exposed pipes in foam insulation commonly found at hardware stores.
Carr said NCCWD’s push text communication system with customers would be critical in reaching homeowners to tell them to drizzle their pipes.
“If it gets cold, anyone should think about — is there maybe a pipe in the yard or around the house that needs additional insulation?” Heldmaier said. “... As long as the water is moving through the short section of pipe that’s used and water is used during regular intervals, that usually helps to prevent a freezing.”
Extended heat waves could bring different dangers. They include low or contaminated water supply, but threats to electronic systems could be more serious. Backup servers in Pacifica and cooling equipment in Montara keep their water monitoring systems awake.
The South Coast, too, is working toward building resilient infrastructure. In October of last year, San Mateo County’s Department of Public Works applied for a $117,800 grant for a permanent generator at CSA 11, the county-run water provider for around 90 Pescadero households. Deputy Director of Engineering and Resource Protection Ann Stillman said the generator would allow CSA 11 to continue pumping water from its well and monitoring the storage tank’s levels during a power outage.
Stillman said that application was denied earlier this month, so the county may consider using a mobile generator or purchasing the generator without the grant money.
CCWD General Manager Mary Rogren also applied for the county grant, requesting $200,000 to increase the Half Moon Bay district’s diesel supply. She hasn’t heard yet whether that application was approved, but said the district plans to make the purchase with or without the money.
“As long as we have diesel, we’re good,” Rogren said. “... We are kind of isolated here on the coast, so we have to make sure we’re in a good situation where we can operate.”
Power outages aren’t the only hazard to local infrastructure. Carr and Rogren are thinking about the threat of earthquakes, and making sure their pumps and tanks are secure against breaks. In addition to using earthquake-proof concrete, Carr said getting their staff out to fix breaks is key to their response.
That’s why having hardy communication infrastructure is important, too. Each of the agencies has backup radio systems and generators for their automated control panels. Plus, they are
members of CALWARN, an interagency system to call in for help from neighboring districts should a disaster strike.
Rogren said the news out of Texas was less a wake-up call and more a confirmation of local efforts and money well-spent on infrastructure improvements, which now include clearing weeds and brush that could be fire hazards around facilities. She said the handful of times the power has kicked out recently, CCWD’s backup systems have performed seamlessly.
“It helps us sleep a little bit at night,” Rogren said.