For residents living in the Paonia area, life is returning to normal. More than two weeks after the Town of Paonia's drinking water system failed and an emergency was declared, water service has returned to most of the town's more than 1,600 customers, town staff and volunteers are working to meet citizens' basic needs, and incident management teams are on the scene to ensure the emergency doesn't become a crisis.
But the emergency is not over. As of Monday evening, following a week without water, service was slowly returning to all the taps town administrator Ken Knight ordered shut off last week so that schools, daycare and elder care centers and local businesses could have enough water to remain open. As of Monday, water was flowing to all the zones in the system, according to Knight.
Those whose water was turned off will remain under a boil-water order until further notice. Until the order is lifted, bottled drinking water will be available at Town Hall during regular business hours. Once the water delivery system has been fully pressurized, it will be sanitized using a high-chlorine solution. If water smells like chlorine, "Don't be alarmed," said Knight.
Because the town is still in emergency mode, Knight told more than 200 people attending a Feb. 26 standing-room-only Town Hall information meeting, "No long-range action plan has been put in place." That process will take time and require the assistance from multiple agencies.
The town has now held two Town Hall meetings to keep the public informed and listen to the needs of the citizens. "We are trying to be transparent and give the people an opportunity to comment," said Knight.
While the agenda has not been set for the March 12 town board meeting, if the water situation is not on the agenda, citizens have an opportunity to speak at the start of the 6:30 p.m. meeting under "Recognition of visitors and guests."
After the emergency was first declared on Feb. 18, town staff began posting information and regular updates on its website and Facebook page, the Public Works Department worked around the clock to locate and fix the leaks that had drained the two-million gallon storage tank, and citizens called the town to offer assistance.
"All of these people have done such a great job," said Knight. But in a crisis, "There's only so much we can do."
Delta County Emergency Management coordinator Kris Stewart described the community response as "Delta County at its best." Through volunteerism and numerous other ways, "Delta County has come out and shown its true colors."
After the town was unable to return to normal service and out-of-town and in-town taps were shut off, Gov. Jared Polis declared an emergency on Feb. 28. That allowed the town access to state disaster emergency funds and resource mobilization. The Colorado Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management Southwest Incident Management Team was dispersed to Paonia and established an incident command post at the Technical College of the Rockies Paonia campus. Team members responded from as far away as the Durango-Cortez area and Denver.
"We're here to serve the town in a support role," said team communications manager Tracy Trulove with the Colorado Department of Transportation Northwest Colorado Region. The DHS deploys teams to incidents that overwhelm local jurisdictions and respond to the local needs, said Trulove. When an area hasn't yet experienced an emergency situation or dealt with an incident management team, "That first day's a little chaotic until you start to understand how our system works."
This is the first time a Level 3 team has been dispersed to Delta County, said Trulove. This team has worked closely with the public to provide regular updates on social media and the town website, secure potable and non-potable water sources, ensure that the town's water system is functioning properly, provide Porta Potties to densely-occupied neighborhoods without water, and provide long-term contingency planning in the event things don't go right and the logistics team needs to ramp up support.
One of five teams in Colorado and some 200 teams nationwide, the Southwest Incident team trains extensively in emergency response, law enforcement, emergency management, public works, food enforcement, hazmat, search and rescue and other areas related to disaster situations. This team has responded to numerous situations, including the 2013 flash floods that struck Boulder, Larimer, Adams and Arapahoe counties, and to Hurricane Florence in South Carolina last September. While each member's job is very specific, the team works under a national structure that provides flexibility to fit the needs of each community they assist, said Trulove.
As part of the response effort, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees water quality in the state, sent experts to inspect the springs at the base of Lamborn Mesa and return flows to a more normal level. Mt. Lamborn Ranch gave the town permission to tap into raw water from Roeber Reservoir, adding about 300 gallons per minute to the system. As of March 5, the town was producing more water than was going out, said Knight.
To contain losses, the town public works department located and fixed leaks on West Fourth Street near the Paonia Library and at Fifth and Box Elder, said Public Works director Loberg. Late last week, a detection team from Westminster was brought in and located a significant leak at Paonia Elementary, and a City of Montrose Public Works crew quickly repaired it.
what locals need'
While the team works under a national structure, "Things happen more quickly when they're handled at the local level," said Drew Peterson with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "It's the locals who know what the locals need."
To mobilize local volunteers, Paonia resident Debbie Kimball was designated the team's "local volunteer coordinator." While her home was without water, Kimball started checking in on the elderly and homebound citizens, bringing them drinking water and asking them what they need. By the time the incident team arrived, she was organizing volunteers.
She did it, she said, "to support the community." A Realtor with Premier Partners Needlerock Mountain Realty, Kimball raised three kids in Paonia, knows people in the community and has always tried to be involved.
"The biggest demand by far has been drinking water," said Kimball. Some citizens are not connected to social media and "aren't the first people to pick up the phone" and ask for help, she said. She reached out to the community to find out who they are and what their needs were. "I'm getting calls from people who say they have a neighbor that hasn't had water for a week," said Kimball last Saturday afternoon.
Kimball set up a recycling bin at Paonia Town Hall to keep thousands of plastic bottles out of the landfill, organized volunteers to take people to Hotchkiss for showers and laundry services, and worked with Paonia High School assistant principal Karla Head to organize student volunteers. Student volunteers receive letters of commendation from the state and town that can be used in college applications.
Kimball was surprised by the number of people to volunteer. On Sunday morning, seven cadets with the Delta County Civil Air Patrol greeted Kimball at Town Hall. "It's actually been a pleasure, it's been great," said Kimball. "As long as people are under a boil order, If there's a need, I'll be there to help."
This is Kimball's first volunteer experience under an emergency. Most impressive, she said, is the incident team dynamics. "Everyone is working toward the same goal of solving problems."
On Feb. 27, after the town announced that water demand was exceeding the treatment plant's ability to produce drinking water and began shutting water to out-of-town water comanies, the Delta County Board of County Commissioners issued a resolution declaring a local disaster emergency. The county's emergency response team was activated on Feb. 18.
This is the first time Delta County has responded to an emergency since updating its Emergency Management Plan in 2018, said Kris Stewart. "It's putting the plan to the test," said Stewart. "Unfortunately, it is an emergency, and it's a big inconvenience to people the last two weeks without water." But the experience, said Stewart, "helps the county to strengthen the plan so that we can be better prepared for next time."
During the five-day boil-water order, the Delta County Health Department ordered all food service businesses closed. When a water system loses water pressure, said health department director Ken Nordstrom at the Town Hall meeting, contamination from backflow and from non-potable sources "rises exponentially." Just cleaning food preparation areas and washing hands becomes difficult. "Washing hands is your number one defense against disease," said Nordstrom.
Businesses that lost income during the boil order are not likely to realize any reimbursement from the town or the state. However, they may be eligible for low-interest small business loans, said Drew Peterson with Homeland Security. "To start looking into low-interest loans, we need five to 10 businesses who are interested." The process requires time and work and proof that revenues are down over the prior year. A canvassing of businesses revealed that very few were interested in low-interest loans for being out of business for a week, said Peterson.
The town is not liable for losses under the state's Governmental Immunity Act, which establishes general immunity from lawsuits. "The town will not waive that right," said town administrator Knight.
One thing the town can do to help, said Mayor Charles Stewart at the town hall meeting, is to purchase their goods and services. "Let's go out and get dinner, let's go out to the pub. That sounds like a really good idea right now. We can get out there and we can show that we support businesses."
Updates will continue to be posted on the Town of Paonia website, www.townofpaonia.com, and on the "Town of Paonia, Colorado," and "Delta County Emergency Management Facebook" pages. An interactive map identifying areas under a boil-water order is available on the Facebook pages and at . When the boil order is lifted, notification will be sent out through the Delta County CodeRED phone alert system.