Company evaluating failed water system

After a water main break Tuesday at Missouri American Water’s Jefferson City treatment plant that left customers with no service for several hours and under a boil order for two days, company officials said a comprehensive engineering evaluation is under way to determine the future of the system that failed.

The break occurred on a 90-year-old pressure bypass pipe that connects the pumps to one of the water mains leaving the plant.

“Because the break occurred near electrical equipment, we had to shut down power to ensure our employees’ safety while they made the repair,” company spokesman Ann Dettmer said. “To make the repair quickly, we removed the connections and put pipe clamps in its place. With this repair, the pressure bypass pipe was disconnected from our water system. We have a second electronic system in place that helps us monitor and control pressure. The new electronic system allowed us to disconnect the old system from our plant.”

Dettmer said in the 12 years Missouri American Water has owned and operated Jefferson City’s water system, they’ve made continuous improvements — investing more than $23 million in the last nine years.

“We are designing several water plant improvements now for construction in 2013 and 2014,” she said. “These improvements will replace aging systems, enhance reliability and help provide capacity we need to meet customer demands.”

These improvements include:

• A new 1.5 million gallon elevated storage tank in the northwest part of Jefferson City.

• Improvements to the treatment plant including adding a new basin to treat and soften the water, replacing equipment that feeds fluoride into the water, replacing equipment that treats and softens the water and replacing the clearwell, which is an underground facility that stores treated water before it is pumped to the water mains that serve customers.

To identify weaknesses in the system, Dettmer said Missouri American has done engineering studies to determine what they need to address.

“We’ve completed the top priority improvement — the $12 million investment in upgrading systems that deliver water from the Missouri River to the plant,” she said. “As a result, during this hot summer, we did not have to ask customers to conserve water. The next set of priorities has been identified, but because Department of Homeland Security considers water treatment systems to be critical infrastructure, for security reasons, we maintain confidentiality for these independent engineering reports.”

Dettmer said the cost for these improvements will depend on the final design and the construction bids that they receive.

“As a Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) regulated utility, we cannot recover the costs of water system improvements until the systems are completed, serving customers, and a rate case is filed,” she said. “The PSC performs a comprehensive audit of the costs as part of the rate case. Under current PSC rate-making policies, the costs are paid only by the customers in Jefferson City who benefit from the improvements. In Jefferson City, customers pay about a penny a gallon for water service.”

Dettmer said the reason improvements weren’t made in the most recent upgrade which could have prevented Tuesday’s break was because the system provides a 24-7 service.

“This incident was caused by an unexpected break in a pipe,” she said. “While we can’t anticipate every break, we do respond quickly when they occur to minimize service interruptions to our customers. This was a rare occurrence in our history. Our engineering studies evaluate our system and set our priorities for system investment. Our system includes the plant, water storage facilities, 147 miles of water lines and more than 900 fire hydrants. Age is one of many factors that we consider as we evaluate our improvement plans — we also look at issues of reliability, safety, regulatory requirements and the consequences of failure.”

Dettmer said In addition to their engineering planning, the company also conducts regular maintenance activities.

“We use infrared and vibration technology to help us evaluate the condition of motors and other electrical components — a means of testing the durability of key parts of the system. Every year, we replace aging water mains — this year we replaced about 1600 feet of 80-100 year-old water mains in the downtown area to help ensure service reliability for downtown businesses.”

“Many communities across the country are facing the challenges of aging water and wastewater infrastructure and associated rate increases,” Dettmer added. “The EPA says the nation’s water utilities will need to make more than $335 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years to replace thousands of miles of pipe and for upgrades to treatment plants, storage tanks and other assets to ensure public health.”

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