Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

by Brian P. Murphy on 2017-09-20 2:33pm

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge


While water is always among our most precious and sensitive natural resources, its value is never more apparent than when you don't have it, such as during hurricanes, flooding, and other disasters. At times when the woes of the ancient mariner wash ashore and the streets are inundated with undrinkable water deep enough to navigate rescue boats, the water management system is at both its most vulnerable and valuable.


Nothing brings this into focus like the recent spate of monster-sized storms battering the southeast corner of our nation. As millions dig out in Texas and Florida from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively, the nation needs to pull together to help them out and to re-examine our own situations in case we're the next in line for some form of climatic chaos.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, have performed extensive studies and compiled some disaster-preparedness recommendations and an "Incident Action Checklist" specifically for the protection of water systems.


Some of the hazards posed to water systems leading to service interruptions, the EPA points out, include:

  • Pipe breaks due to washouts, up-rooted trees, etc., which could result in sewage spills or low water pressure throughout the service area

  • Loss of power and communication infrastructure due to high winds

  • Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) due to flooding

  • Restricted access to facilities and collection and distribution system assets due to debris and flood waters

  • Loss of water quality testing capability during the storm due to restricted facility and laboratory access and damage to utility equipment


During what EPA calls "Superstorm" Sandy in October 2012 utilities from Florida to Maine were very active in monitoring and preparing for its landfall. More than 690 drinking water and wastewater utilities across 11 states and Washington, D.C., experienced impacts from the storm. But much more than drinking water is affected. When Water systems aren't functioning, neither are toilets, showers, washers, dryers, etc


Here are some of the key steps that can be taken to help prepare your local water system for tough times and disasters:


  • Have a list of emergency contact phone numbers handy (waterproofed/laminated), including resources such as:

    • Local EMA

    • State EMA

    • Local utilities

    • EPA

  • Actions to prepare for hurricane season, including (partial listing):

    • Review and update emergency response plans (ERP)

    • Identify priority customers (hospitals, assisted living centers, schools, etc.)

    • Conduct joint tabletop or full-scale exercises

    • Establish communication protocols and equipment to reduce potential miscues during the actual event

  • Actions to Respond to a Hurricane: Pre-Landfall Activities (partial list):

    • Secure equipment; move electronics, equipment, and important data to watertight facility or out of flood-prone areas

    • Protect exposed lines or pipes that may become vulnerable due to streambank erosion

    • Consider how evacuations or limited staffing due to transportation issues will impact response procedures

    • Identify possible staging areas for mutual aid crews if needed in the response, and the availability of local facilities to house the crews

  • Actions to Respond to a Hurricane: Post-Landfall (Drinking Water Utilities, partial list):

    • Inspect utility and service areas for damage due to debris, downed trees, and flood waters

    • Ensure proper pressure is maintained throughout the system and isolate those sections where it isn't

    • Isolate and control leaks in water transmission and distribution piping

    • Monitor water quality, develop a sampling plan and adjust treatment as necessary


For more on this from the EPA, go to the Water Sector Incident Action checklist here.


Brian P. Murphy, the author, is a researcher and writer for At Your Pace Online, an online provider through AYPOTech.com.