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A Perfect Storm: How the City of St. Peters Responded to the June 19 Water Emergency

July 28, 2021
On the evening of June 19, 2021, you may have gone to get some fresh tap water from your sink, only to find a trickle. Your power may have been out from that day’s thunderous storm, and you were hearing news alerts about boiling and conserving your water supply. It wasn’t long before you had fresh, clean water to drink again, but you might still wonder … What was going on with our water after that storm?

The answer is more complicated than a mere power outage: the storm on June 19 created several simultaneous challenges for our Utilities Department and amounted to the largest-scale water emergency the City of St. Peters ever faced.

The Night of June 19, 2021

At about 5:30 p.m., the power went out across the City due to lightning strikes, affecting 11 zip codes in the area. One of the facilities affected was our Water Plant’s supply wells.

At that time, the City’s on-duty Utility Operator noticed our water plant’s pressure was less than 10 times its proper amount. The operator pumped more water into the system, and yet the water pressure still didn’t raise. Our Utilities crew soon found that there was a massive break in one of the main distribution pipelines leaving the water plant. The power surges caused a pump to quickly cycle on and off, causing water flow to shift unexpectedly in what’s called a “transient pressure surge.” The force of this surge caused a 16-inch line to break and a flood of water to pool up outside our plant (see photo below). This break required shutting off the plant’s entire west-side water supply.

 

Water-main-break-transient-pressure-surge 


On top of the City’s break at the water plant, there was another major problem: The Joint Venture pump station, which brings water from the City of St. Louis to both St. Peters and St. Charles, was out of power as well. This station pumps over half of the water supply to the City of St. Peters’ utilities customers. The City of St. Peters has both City-owned wells and a water supply from St. Louis City so that it can provide two sources of water for our customers, which means that if there’s a problem with one source, the other is available to pick up most of the slack. But with the water line break at the St. Peters’ water plant and power outage at the Joint Venture pump station, no water could be pumped anywhere.

Utilities Plant Operations Foreman Rusty Kinion said these issues individually have contingencies in place so that water service can continue operations. But it’s unprecedented for these problems to happen all at once. During this perfect storm, St. Peters lost too much water. This situation called for a large crew to assess and address each problem as quickly—and safely—as possible so residents could get their water back.

“We have experienced power loss before, and have generator back-up at the water plant to mitigate this,” said Rusty. “[But] the leak at the water plant … compounded with the loss of power at our Joint Venture pump station was unique to this storm. [We were] limited in how much we could pump into the system until the leak was repaired.”

With the line break at the City’s plant and the Joint Venture station out of power, the City was losing over 12,000 gallons of water a minute. Fixing that leak and regaining power was the first priority.

The St. Peters water plant had the break isolated by 7 p.m. so the crew could fix it. The City’s utility crew dug underground to reach the broken line—quickly but carefully, in order to avoid damaging the water line directly next to it. Part of the crew took a portable generator to the Joint Venture pump station around 8 p.m. The Joint Venture station regained power around 10:30 p.m. About 250,000-300,000 gallons of water were lost due to the leak at this point.

By midnight, the Joint Venture station regained power, but water storage levels remained low. In order for the tanks to refill and build back water pressure, we needed time to recover and test water safety levels.

The Water Boil Order and Conservation Notice

While we had no indication that our City’s water supply was contaminated, it’s necessary that our Utilities Department confirms water quality after a loss in water pressure. Once the water line was repaired and the Utilities crew flushed out debris on Sunday morning, they collected water samples to test at a lab for bacteria such as E. coli. This is usually tested monthly without power or pressure issues, but when water pressure is low after a water line break, it becomes a priority to make sure our water remained safe to residents. Until the test results came back safe on Monday morning, June 21, we advised our residents that they could boil their water for 3-5 minutes for consumption or cooking purposes.

While the boil order was specifically for drinking and cooking, the water conservation notice was in place until our plant’s water system storage filled back up. It was important to have the conservation notice in effect at that time, in case fire or other emergency services needed water during this timeframe. Until the tanks were completely replenished, we requested residents only use water as necessary, and to turn off irrigation systems. This was complicated by another large water main leak found the morning of June 21 that needed to be repaired before lifting the conservation order.

Thankfully, there was another source of water available to help replenish our tanks, through an agreement with Missouri American Water. Interconnected pipes allow one water supplier to help bolster the other’s operation when necessary. After fixing the other break and with the assistance of these interconnected pipes, the City’s water storage was fully replenished by Tuesday morning, June 22. St. Peters lifted the water conservation notice shortly after.

Informing Our Customers

As soon as water pressure dropped on June 19, customers went straight to the phone and the City of St. Peters website to find out what happened. We received hundreds of calls from customers asking about their power and water supply. Instead of the typical 2,000 users visiting our City’s website, we received over 10,000 users on Sunday, June 20, alone. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, and what was happening next.

In order to keep residents informed about the situation, our Communications team posted messages on the website, SPTVnow.net, and digital display boards on Mexico Road and Salt Lick Road, sent several news releases to news media, and emailed UpFront newsletters to subscribers. The first of these announcements called for the water boil order and water conservation notice at 7:47 p.m., while later updates walked residents through the reason for these orders. These various updates on the City’s website were viewed 20,000 times in total. In addition, anyone who called to report the water outage and opted in to getting updates received text alerts about the boil order and conservation notice.


Phone-call-heat-map 

 

After the Storm

The storm took down plenty of leaves and limbs, plus some trees, requiring extensive cleanup in our neighborhoods in the following days. Our Solid Waste collection scale houses received over 500 yards of storm debris from St. Peters and Cottleville between June 21-26 with a record-high $4,569 in yard waste fees for the period. About 140 storm debris pickups were scheduled between June 22-July 2 for St. Peters and Cottleville residents, and around 30 brush piles were included with pre-scheduled bulky collections on June 22 and 23.

While the storm on June 19 was the most severe emergency our Utilities crew has faced to date, their expertise and knowledge allowed a quick recovery process.

“The storm itself and its effects were a surprise, but I wouldn’t classify anything we found when responding as a surprise,” said Rusty. “We looked at the condition of the system based on the information we had available… [and] we discussed what happened following the storm. We have a good team that knows our system and equipment well, making them able to get things quickly running again.”

There was one valuable lesson that this storm proved true to Rusty and his team, however …

“Be prepared for the unexpected – we all know this already, but this event was a good reminder.”