Keeping Water Systems Under Control During a Storm

During an atmospheric river, team members worked to maintain San José’s municipal water system while the storm caused flooding and outages

By Meredith Williams

Climate change is bringing bigger and more unpredictable storms. San José Environmental Services’ Municipal Water System is ready to handle it.

After an atmospheric river brought massive power outages and flooding to the South San Francisco Bay Area over the weekend of February 3-4, San José Municipal Water Systems (Muni Water) Operations Superintendent James Perez walked into work that Monday and knew something was off. Driving in, the radio warned there were power outages and some flooding in San José, California. 

Perez wasn’t getting any emergency notifications or alarms on his phone, so he knew he had to be ready for anything he found when he got to work. He found a dark computer control room.

Muni Water serves about 12% of San José households, delivering clean drinking water to over 100,000 customers from Alviso to Evergreen areas. Muni Water’s facility is equipped with a computer room that monitors water levels at pump stations throughout San José, feeds tanks with purchased water and communicates to workers in the field. On the Monday after the largest storm of the rainy season hit San José this winter, they had no power. 

“There weren’t alarms sounding, but I knew we should have power in this room because of our generators,” said Perez. “My FEMA training kicked in and I mapped out the moving parts on a whiteboard. It was second nature to rally our Operations and Maintenance (O&M) team to work together and get all backup units up and running to make sure we were online, with water flowing.”

Perez and Torres agree that spending the countless hours of practice and drills not only paid off in the aftermath of the storm, but also equipped them to better handle any future storms that may hit.”

The impact of the storm was extensive. There were several downed power lines and thousands of residences were without power for several days. “We provide an essential service, so it’s vital that our system has reliability,” said Water Systems Operations Manager, Ruben Torres. 

As climate change brings extreme weather, ensuring clean drinking water is available to the community is crucial. Clean and reliable potable water protects against disease transmission, reinforces diverse plant and wildlife ecosystems and is key to healthy environments.

“Preserving our drinking water supply to meet our community’s needs is our priority not only for today but for the long term,” said Jeff Provenzano, ESD assistant director. “Providing clean drinking water is essential to healthy communities and environments. Our job is to be innovative about preparing for these phenomena, continue to provide water services uninterrupted to our community, and how we act during polarizing weather events.” 

“The storm affected other services in the Bay Area, like our phone carrier. We employed a high level of emergency preparedness that day. That means having multiple layers of redundancies systemwide, like multiple communication devices with different carriers. Many layers of planning and anticipating what would happen if any component failed during an emergency happen beforehand. Having steps in place, knowing what we need to do, fast, is key,” said Torres.

It is a complicated effort to continue providing water around the clock to thousands of homes in San José. Perez knew what to do because of the Emergency Response Plan training he practiced with staff. Some of the O&M staff responded to the emergency, while others continued to perform their essential duties. That training and knowledge were a large part of why the February Atmospheric River didn’t cause people to go without drinking water.

Perez and Torres agree that spending countless hours of practice and drills not only paid off in the aftermath of the storm but also equipped them to better handle any future storms that may hit San José. On that Monday, and every day, they did their job in the most harrowing of situations.

This article was written in collaboration with Manager Jennie Hwang Loft and Supervisor Christina Valdivia Warren.

Meredith Williams is a public information representative for the City of San José Environmental Services Communications Division.

Photo caption: San José Municipal Water System Operations and Maintenance Team. Photo credit: Behilma Magday, City of San José Environmental Services Department.

Discover more from American Infrastructure

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading