I am writing this late Sunday night, having just returned from the Water Treatment Plant. It has been a long difficult day for many of our staff there, many of whom responded around 3 a.m. this morning as the overnight operator noticed water begin to pour into the basement area of the plant, erupting from multiple locations in the concrete floor. It was determined that the water was likely coming from a break in the 24-inch backwash pipe that is located under the building, under the concrete floor. This pipe is critical to the water treatment process. We had to shut this pipe down. What that meant is we could no longer treat water, so the only treated water we could distribute was the water located in our water storage tanks. Staff quickly recognized the urgency of the situation and we did a partial activation of our Emergency Operations Center, bringing in a number of resources to address this problem. We began working on a temporary solution that would allow us to work around this line to treat water before our water reserves were depleted. At the same time staff also began work to determine what would be needed for a permanent fix. Ultimately, we determined, after careful consideration, that we would need to ask the community to reduce their water consumption to help us gain more time to make the fix to the 24-inch line. This evening the team, after three attempts, was able to construct a temporary solution to allow us to begin treating water. This has allowed us to begin to refill our depleted water reserves as of tonight. This temporary fix, combined with reduced water use in the city, enables City staff to have more time to work on a permanent fix to the backwash pipe. We deeply appreciate your patience and cooperation, which enables City staff to continue delivering water that is safe to drink. (Below are photos of staff working hard to resolve the problem.)
I’ve already heard some rumblings about how this could happen…Do we inspect and conduct maintenance on our water infrastructure? We definitely do our best with a small but amazing staff. I’m consistently proud of them and was incredibly humbled to watch them at work today, some of them 18-hours in, coming up with creative ideas and then putting them into action to ensure we were able to continue to provide water to our community. That said, and I know I have said it before, we have kicked the can of properly funding our infrastructure down the road for decades. It is never popular to raise rates and so it was left to the next generation, then the next. And so, we have an approximate $300 million dollar Capital Improvement Program we now need to fund over the next 20 years. I know it is unlikely we will hit that target, but I’m very proud of the Council for taking the first step to try and turn that decline around, despite the frustration from the community in passing the last rate study. Those increases will not fix the problems completely, but it was an important first step on the road forward. Unfortunately, we will continue to face pipeline failures, pump failures, etc., as we work over the decades coming to catch up with where our infrastructure should be.
And perhaps the most important piece of our City infrastructure is not often thought about as such. But it is our most important piece of infrastructure. Our staff. For years we have failed to remain competitive in both how we compensate and how we create an environment for the success of our staff. Thus, we have been unable to recruit, let alone retain, staff in many key positions. This is devastating, as it inhibits our ability to get projects done, stay up to date with maintenance projects, or otherwise be the high performing organization that our community deserves. Again, this Council has stepped up and really engaged on this issue, allowing us to make real progress for the first time in many years. We are beginning to see good applicants in many key vacant positions (mostly in Public Works), including some vacancies that have been advertised for over two years! We have more initiatives coming to help address this issue.
Bottom line, we know we have a lot of work to do, and we are committed to doing just that. We are fortunate to have the support of our City Council and our community as we move forward to a vision of excellence.
We will continue to update the community on the status of the Water Treatment Plant and will lift the restrictions as soon as we can. That said, the State will be pushing out drought related water use restrictions as well in the near future that could be in range of what we are requiring now due to this emergency.
Thank you for your interest in the City of Benicia This Week!