Report details 'bizarre' Paonia water crisis

Photo by Tamie Meck Drew Peterson, West Region Field Manager for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, along with other agency and Delta County representatives, addresses citizens during Paonia\'s water crisis that left some

The chain of events leading to the Town of Paonia's loss of water service that left homes and businesses without water for up to three weeks were "rare" and "difficult to catch and fix quickly," according to town staff and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

More than three months after the loss of water to taps that began Feb. 18 and ended March 8, a long-awaited After Action Report (AAR) was released to the public last Friday.

The nine-page "2019 Paonia Water Supply Issue" report does not cover the events leading to the shut-down of the town's water delivery system that resulted in state boil orders, a loss of income to local businesses, and cost taxpayers almost $178,000 including $55,336 in in-kind work and $27,000 billable to the State of Colorado. Nor does the report address best practices, the need for water storage, or delivery or infrastructure upgrades that would prevent the town from experiencing a similar event in the future.

Rather, the report, which captures comments from a March 28 "after action review" involving town staff and administration and representatives of the more than 22 agencies and organizations that responded to the incident, is intended "to share lessons learned from the Water Issues Incident."

The report begins Monday, Feb. 18, also President's Day, when the town "was alerted to low water levels" at the two million gallon (2MG) Lamborn Water Treatment Plant. Public works director Travis Loberg first became aware of a problem while attending training in Denver the week of Feb. 11. The town's sole distribution system and treatment operator, Loberg was monitoring the plant remotely and logging daily reports.

On Feb. 11, according to Loberg, the plant's 2MG tank, which measures full at a depth of 30 feet, measured at 23.69 feet. On Tuesday, Feb. 12, said Loberg, he received a call on a "good-sized" water leak in a service line on Minerich Road. Loberg immediately suspected a leak in the system, which is not uncommon. "It was dropping fairly quickly," he said.

He increased water production flows from the raw water springs at the base of Lamborn Mesa to the treatment plant. Up to that point, Loberg said, "Nothing was alarming to me." The day he left for training, records show, the springs were providing enough water, on average, to produce 156,000 gallons of potable water a day -- less than its capacity rating of 468,000 per day, but more than enough to meet user demands.

Once the leak was fixed, Loberg assumed the problem was over. But the tank's water level continued to drop. On Feb. 13 water measured 19.43 feet and was still dropping. At that point, he said, public works staff and contractors familiar with the system began walking the 25-square-mile service area looking for "a giant leak" and checking master meters to isolate problems. "Master meters weren't showing anything," said Loberg. "We figured (water) would surface" where leaks were occurring. The rain and melting snow was difficult to distinguish from water bubbling up from below, which, he said, is typical with a leak.

At 11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, Loberg returned from Denver and immediately joined in the search. The crew worked all weekend and found no signs of leaks. On Saturday the tank measured at 4.02 feet, and by Sunday was at three-quarters of a foot. "It was basically empty," said Loberg.

At 3 a.m. Monday, President's Day, the first call of lost water service came in from the Lamborn Mesa area. By mid-day the system had drained, 1,600 customers were out of water, Mayor Charles Stewart and administrator Ken Knight declared a local emergency. The town also requested assistance from the Delta County Emergency Management and Public Health departments. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a Tier 1 notice placing the town under a "Boil Water Advisory" to protect public health due to the system pressure loss creating increased chance of disease-causing organisms entering the delivery system.

According to the AAR, during the week town crews found two "major" leaks on West Fourth Street near the North Fork of the Gunnison River. One, the result of cracked pipes beneath a fire hydrant, was leaking an estimated 50,000 gallons per day. The other leak, said Loberg, was in an abandoned one-inch service line. "It was running probably 400 gallons a minute," said Loberg. "It was a big leak."

Per the AAR, the leaks were "not immediately noticeable," due to water from both leaks flowing underground and directly into the river. Public works repaired the leaks and began re-pressurizing the system. Service to most taps was restored, and on Friday, Feb. 22, the state's boil order was lifted.

But that wasn't the end of it. Between Feb. 23-25, according to the AAR, "volume continued to drop" in the 2MG tank and water supply from the springs failed to keep pace with demand. On Feb. 26, Knight ordered water service to all private out-of-town water companies, excluding those on Pitkin and Bone mesas, Paonia Care & Rehabilitation Center, Creek Vista Senior Apartments, shut off. The public was informed via social media and other means, and those with water service were advised to conserve water. Knight said the decision was a difficult one made in order to "maintain pressure at schools and restaurants and prevent another system-wide boil order."

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, according to the AAR, Delta County commissioners declared a county emergency and activated the county's Emergency Operations Center. Additional staff was brought in to assist the town with the response. On Tuesday, March 28, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis verbally declared an emergency, activating the Level 3 Southwest Incident Management Team (SWIMT). As part of the response effort, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent experts to inspect the springs at the base of Lamborn Mesa and assist the town in returning flows to the tank to their normal levels. On March 1, the state issued a boil water advisory for the zones without water, "due to water being shut off" on Feb. 26, with notice to go out as the zones were re-pressurized.

With assistance from the City of Westminster, which brought in sophisticated leak detection equipment, and the City of Montrose, another large leak was located beneath Paonia Elementary School after the school reported a loss of water pressure, and the leak, estimated at 100,000 gallons per day, was repaired. At that point, said Loberg, raw water supply began to outpace demand and the 2MG tank began filling. Mt. Lamborn Ranch also allowed the town to tap into raw water from Roeber Reservoir, adding an additional 300 gallons per minute to the system.

On Monday, March 4, re-pressurization of the remaining zones began. Over the course of March 5-6, service was restored to all zones, and on March 8, the CDPHE lifted the boil order.

The town is already studying the AAR and implementing actions to further reduce the possibility of another water crisis. Loberg said his crew is installing master meters and locating dead-end lines that are still connected to the main system. They're also working toward long-term plans that include mapping and GPS of the entire water system, and putting a better emergency response system in place.

They're also looking to put the events behind them. MaryAnn Nason, communications and special projects unit manager, said in an email that while "water line breaks in the winter are not unusual for any water system," the "number of breaks, along with the geographic spread of the (town), made it difficult to catch and fix (leaks) quickly, which ultimately contributed to the scope and magnitude of the event."

"It was a really bizarre scenario to have three big leaks that never surfaced," said Loberg. Looking back, he said, "I don't think there was anything I could have done" to change the outcome. The leaks were both large and undetectable without special equipment. "You just don't see that." In the end, he said, "The only thing that I know I would have done different now, I would have called leak detectors in earlier."


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