California Blackouts may create shortage of water : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Blackouts may create shortage of water: State officials warn that supplies for drinking and fire hydrants are vulnerable because pumps can fail during power outages.

By Chris Bowman Bee Staff Writer (Published May 16, 2001) State health authorities are notifying public water utilities to secure emergency water and backup power so fire hydrants won't run dry and drinking water remains safe during blackouts.

The notice, which is being issued this week to all 8,700 public water systems in the state, also advises utilities to warn the public that tap water could turn cloudy or contaminated during a prolonged power outage at the utilities' well pumps.

The Department of Health Services also suggested alerting consumers to "immediately discontinue any non-essential water usage" during water outages or low water pressure.

Clamping down on water use, particularly outdoor irrigation and car washing, reduces the chances of water systems losing pressure or running dry, state officials said.

Loss of pressure can introduce bacterial contamination into the drinking-water supply. Water pipes inevitably leak, and the leakage that mixes with soil can get sucked back into the system through cracks in the underground delivery network. The effect, called back-siphonage, is similar to sipping water through a straw.

As a precaution, the state health notice advises water utilities to increase monitoring for harmful microbes in areas that lose power.

Changes in water pressure also can churn up sediment settled in pipes, causing tap water to turn brown or cloudy. Consumers are advised to open hot- and cold-water faucets when normal water service is restored to flush the lines until the water turns clear.

The state health advisory comes at the beginning of air-conditioning season that threatens to drain California's power-short supplies on hot days.

The Association of California Water Agencies is telling its members to "prepare for multiple, multi-hour power outages: 80-100 hours of power outages (during the summer) based on average assumptions, up to 1,000 hours if things get worse."

At issue are the electrical pumps that extract water from wells and keep supplies flowing at a constant rate through underground networks of municipal water mains and pipes.

The state Public Utilities Commission has exempted services "necessary to protect public health and safety" from planned blackouts that power managers impose to avert a collapse of the state's electricity grid.

The exemption, however, does not apply to water-supply or sewage-treatment systems, which rely on electric pumps to keep raw wastewater from spilling out of utility holes.

As a result, water-supply systems are at risk, even for firefighting agencies, which are exempt from the blackouts.

"Those who provide the necessary water for those services should likewise be exempted," said the water-utilities association, which is pressing the PUC for an exemption from blackouts.

PUC officials said that most water utilities have adequate backup generators, though they have agreed to further consider the utilities' case. Many of the generators were bought in anticipation of the Y2K computer havoc that largely failed to materialize.

State health and local utility officials said those generators would prove critical if the power outages became more frequent and prolonged as expected this summer.

In its notice to utilities this week, the state health department says it "encourages all utilities to secure backup power capabilities and to routinely test their emergency power generating equipment. ... In addition, storage should be maintained as full as possible."

The advisory also asks utilities to update their "disaster response plans" so the state can better help utilities in emergencies.

Cliff Sharpe, chief of the health department's drinking-water enforcement for Northern California, said small community water systems are at greatest risk because they lack adequate water storage.

But larger systems such as those in the Sacramento area could have delivery breakdowns if the outages at the well pumps last more than two hours, he said.

Officials at Citizens Water Resources, which serves 180,000 residents in the unincorporated areas of metropolitan Sacramento, said it has water-sharing arrangements with the city of Sacramento and other suppliers in the event of a water outage.

Having enough power to deliver the water, however, is an open question, said Herb Niederberger, Citizens operations manager. The utility has several portable generators and many more on order to install at its wellheads.

Still, officials said they would need the help of residents to make sure the system gets by. They are asking residents to confine outdoor watering from midnight to 10 a.m.

"If the blackouts occur during peak hours of energy use and many customers are using their sprinklers, we'll lose pressure immediately," Niederberger said.


The Bee's Chris Bowman can be reached at (916) 321-1069 or

-- Martin Thompson (, May 16, 2001


Now there's a complication I hadn't even thought of.

-- JackW (, May 16, 2001.

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