Waterline Summer 2008 - EH: Minnesota Department of Health

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Stew Thornley

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Rushford Responds to Flash Flood that Submerges City and Knocks Out Utilities

Rushford sign and tower Rushford under water

The city of Rushford was inundated by a flash flood last August as more than 17 inches of rain fell on parts of southeastern Minnesota. Rushford’s Jeff Copley, Dave Lombard, Doug Rislove, and Dave Howe worked long hours to restore water service to the city and were helped by volunteers from neighboring communities as well as Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). Below right, MDH engineer Mark Sweers checks on the status of leaking service lines that were being shut off in an attempt to restore pressure to the system.

Rushford under water Mark Sweers in Rushford

Rushford under water“I thought I knew everything about water and wastewater,” said Jeff Copley, water and wastewater supervisor for the city of Rushford, “until the flood came.”

On the evening of Saturday, August 18, 2007, torrential rains began in southeastern Minnesota.  In the early hours of Sunday, Rushford, a community of 1,700 people, filled up with water.  Emergency vehicles drove through the city with the sirens sounding, using loudspeakers to inform residents to evacuate.

A dike protects Rushford from the Root River, described as “the traditional enemy of the city” by Rushford city administrator Winthro “Windy” Block.  But it was Rush Creek, usually a quiet trout stream running into the Root River, that erupted.  As more than 17½ inches of rain fell in the area, over five feet of water built up within Rushford, creating what Block called “a bathtub effect, water threatening from the outside and also the inside.”

The wastewater plant, as well as Rushford’s two primary sources of drinking water, wells 3 and 4, were flooded and shut down.  Power and communication were out as more than 50 percent of the city was inundated.

Although many cities in the area had been hard hit by the flood, Rushford was the only one to have a public water supply knocked out of service. 

Help from the outside came quickly.  Jeff Dale of Minnesota Rural Water Association soon arrived, along with Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) engineer Mark Sweers, who came from Mankato.  (The MDH engineer for southeast Minnesota, Paul Halvorson, was out of town at the time.)  Hawkins Chemical Company and Minnesota Pipe & Equipment were among the companies donating labor and supplies.  Utility workers from neighboring communities showed up with equipment and trucks.  Four-wheelers were also used to get around town as all vehicles in Rushford had been submerged. 

“Utilities was the place to start,” Block said of the recovery efforts.  “The top of the dike system had water on both sides.  Pumps were down and more rain was threatening to fall.  Since we have a large agricultural community in the area, we benefited from the pumps and tractors [which were brought in], which helped the town to dry out.” 

Sweers said the immediate goal for the water system was “to go from no pressure, dealing with line breaks, to get the system pressurized, at least for fire protection.”  Well number 2, a backup well more than 50 years old, hadn’t been flooded and was put into service.  “They shut off both reservoirs, the tower and ground-storage tank,” explained Dale.  “There was little pressure, 8 psi [pounds per square inch], when they turned well 2 on.  They shut off curb stops to people’s homes and started getting pressure back.”  The system was fully pressurized after two days.

Rushford under waterThe city issued a notice to residents to not use the water for any reason for fear of losing well number 2.  In addition, the wastewater plant wasn’t operating, leading to pressure from some city officials to turn well 2 off.  Dale, saying they didn’t want to go back to negative pressure, resisted the suggestion and was backed by Sweers.  The city soon allowed people to use the water but advised them to boil it before cooking or drinking until the water system was stable and samples showed no coliform bacteria in the distribution system.

However, positive bacterial samples were continuing at wells 3 and 4.  The city hoped to get them back on-line quickly to take the load off well 2, which had a broken check valve but couldn’t be repaired until another well was operational.  The wells were disinfected and flushed more than 15 times, and Paul Halvorson got samples back to the MDH laboratory in Rochester, 50 miles away, as quickly as he could.  However, the wells continued to have problems with bacteria.  Eventually, well 3 was sealed and taken out of service.  It wasn’t until the following March, nearly nine months after the flood, that well 4 was put back into service.

Rushford well number 2
Well number 2 kept Rushford supplied with water through the winter of 2007-08.

Danny Nubbe and others from Mineral Service Plus of Green Isle, Minnesota, worked with Copley and the others on the wells.  “After we worked on the problem of disinfecting wells and we were failing it,” said Nubbe of wells 3 and 4, “we started to wonder if there was something else than the flood water going down the well, a conduit or a channel for contamination.  We weren’t getting anywhere.
“So we started going around looking for wells to see if we could find any open wells.  Most of the houses in town that we found wells in were there before the water system [which started in the 1930s].  We found as many as four wells in one house, where people said they didn’t have any, but people welcomed us to come in and look.”

Mud in RushfordThe crews discovered a variety of wells in the homes, mostly sand-point wells.  Copley said they anticipated finding anywhere from 40 to 80 sand-point wells as they went from home to home.  As of mid-March in 2008, they had found more than 300 and were still finding more.  Some residents have never connected to the public water supply and still had operating wells in their homes.  However, other wells had been abandoned.  Some were capped but not sealed, and some weren’t sealed at all.  Dale said the abandoned wells were “acting like a floor drain into the shallow aquifer used by some residents with operational private wells.  We had to tell residents with operational wells not to use them, that the water could be contaminated.”

Nubbe and his crew began sealing the abandoned private wells (with costs covered by the county) and also set out in search for other wells in the city.  “We investigated old records, talked to people—one guy in a rest home had a lot of good information.  We started going through every record of the history of the town,” Nubbe said.  “We went to museums to find out about industries in the town.  We found there were wells drilled back in the 1800s that were 300 feet deep, so now we know there are large rock wells in the area.
“After finding information that the wells were there, we had to find out where the wells are.  Some of the buildings are long gone.  So with the help of the health department, we started getting old Sanborn insurance maps, started looking for landmarks, and started finding large wells.”

City well 1, long abandoned, eluded the crews for several weeks.  Finally they determined it was beneath the Rushford State Bank.  With permission from the bank, they chopped through the floor in the lobby.  They didn’t find the well but did dig up an old water main.  Following that, they finally located the well under the bank’s board room.  The well, extending through the Ironton-Galesville, Eau Claire, and Mount Simon aquifers, was 580 feet deep and cased to 108 feet.  It was full of rubble and other debris, including wood with creosote on it. 

They dropped a camera down the well and could see the upflow coming from the Mount Simon and running into the Ironton-Galesville aquifer.  “That helped open our eyes as to what was going in,” Nubbe said.

Another abandoned well, used by the railroad depot and going back to the 1800s, was found.  “It was a dug well 14 feet across, pumping 450 gallons a minute,” said Nubbe.  “The concern was that if a well will give 450 gallons a minute, it will take 450 gallons a minute, and the well was full of rubble.  So we kept going through the town, locating wells, cleaning them out, sealing the wells, trying to eliminate all possibilities of contamination.”

Wells 3 and 4 continued to resist efforts to clean them up, and well 2 continued to supply the city’s water through the winter.  Finally, in February, the decision was made to seal well 3.  At this point, well 4 finally came up clean and was put back into service in March.

Airlifting well 3 Airlifiting well 3
Crews tried an air-lifting process to clean up well number 3. Despite repeated efforts, samples continued to detect coliform bacteria, and the well was finally sealed in February of 2008.

Minnesota WARN

The response to the flood was aided by the emerging Minnesota Water and Wastewater Agency Response Network (MnWARN).  Although not yet formally activated, the mutual-aid network helped in organizing a timely response from other communities.

MnWARN is a mutual-aid agreement between utilities to help one another with personnel and other resources in the event of an emergency.  In the past, police and fire departments and public-health agencies have had mutual-aid networks.  A missing element has been utilities, which are now organizing.  New Ulm water supervisor Al Lamm is a veteran of flood response.  When he was with the Thief River Falls water department in 1997, Lamm coordinated response activities to the flooding in East Grand Forks.  Lamm said it took him five days to organize that response.  “With MnWARN,” Lamm said, “the response can be organized in a matter of hours.”

Since the flood, Rushford became one of the original partners in MnWARN, along with the cities of St. Peter, Hawley, and Elbow Lake.  MnWARN has a web site at http://www.mnwarn.org.

While crews worked to restore the water system to protect the health and safety of the residents of Rushford, the safety of the workers themselves can easily be overlooked.  Norm Hauschildt, the regional safety coordinator for Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, was in Rushford to make sure the workers were looking out for themselves.  “Mud is the least of your worries,” he said.  “It’s the crap.”  Hauschildt was referring to bacteria and other hazardous material that could be in the mud, dust, and water that crews were slogging through. 

“Stay current on your shots [tetanus, hepatitis],” he advised.  “If you’re sick, you’re of no value to anybody.”  The American Red Cross was on site to administer shots.  Hauschildt also said response crews have to be self-sufficient.  Personal protective equipment, including high-visibility vests, portable ground-fault interrupters for generators and electronic equipment, and hand cleaners are important.  “Think about washing your hands not just after, but before you go to the bathroom,” he said. 

What’s Next?
“Barring any unforeseen hang-ups, the city is on its way to remedying its water woes with a $1,500,000 water treatment plant,” the Tri-County Record of Rushford reported August 10, 2007.  The unforeseen hang-up of a flood came up a week-and-a-half later.  As a result, the city has to move the site of the new plant and re-issue bids.  Radium has been a problem for Rushford, particularly with well number 4.  In addition, there have been aesthetic problems with the water because of iron and manganese.  The new plant, along with the drilling of a new well, should solve the problems.

Beyond the new plant, the future of the city is uncertain.  Copley notes that there have been many rumors as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources investigates some of the factors in the flooding and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers performs a study to see what actions may be taken.  The rumors in Rushford involve the need to raise the dike, move residents a certain distance from the dike, or require people to purchase flood insurance.

“They may have to raise the dikes or even move the community to a different level of land,” said Block.  “There is still the issue of a flood-plain designation to be determined.”

Meanwhile, the work goes on in Rushford.  In March of 2008, Copley addressed a group of water operators in Rochester that included three members of his crew, Dave Lombard, Doug Rislove, and Dave Howe.  “The fire department, ambulance service, police department did a wonderful job, and their jobs are done,” Copley said.  “Ours is not.  All of my guys are still going strong.”

House in Rushford

More than 50 percent of the homes and businesses in Rushford were damaged by the flood.

Jeff Copley told water operators at the Southeast District Water School about the city’s experiences in recovering from the flood.

Jeff Copley

Owatonna Students Raise Big Bucks for Water for People

Owatonna students speak on Water for People
Parker Anderson, Lauren Smith, and Kory Kath of Owatonna High School told operators at the Southeast District Waterworks Operators school how they raised money for Water for People.

By Paul Halvorson, Minnesota Department of Health
At the 2008 Southeast District Waterworks Operators school in Rochester, the operators learned of a great effort by students of Owatonna High School.

For several years students have been involved in a project known as “Cash Drive,” sponsored by the Owatonna Student Council. Kory Kath, staff student advisor, described the program at the school of 1,600 students. He introduced Parker Anderson, a senior who has been involved with the Cash Drive for three years. The first project he was involved in raised $12,000 internally at the school for victims of Hurricane Katrina. On the next project, the group decided they wanted to focus locally. They raised $14,300 for Advocates for People with Developmental Disabilities. This was a project where the students could see local results, including helping people at their school.

On the most recent project, the council decided they wanted to do something international in scope. They somehow discovered Water for People. They researched Water for People and found that, in 2006, 82 cents out of every dollar donated was directed to international programs and direct work in the field. They found that it was a worthy cause and decided to support a Water for People project in Africa.

Kath introduced Lauren Smith, a sophomore and co-chair of the Owatonna Student Council. She explained that it was a challenge to get students motivated and passionate about another project. There are 38 members on the Student Council, and they relied heavily on word of mouth to get the project started. They developed an informational poster for teachers. They showed the operators a video that they developed about the situation in Africa. Lauren Smith described some of the fund-raising activities to raise money. They had several dances. A school breakfast was held with food and drinks donated by area businesses. They had a “stop song” event and a maple syrup chugging contest, among other interesting activities, to raise cash.

In all they raised $14,783 for the Water for People project.

Colleen Stiles, chief executive officer of Water for People, heard about the Owatonna students from Judi Kraszewski, director of community relations for Water for People. Stiles was visiting relatives in Minnesota and decided to go to Owatonna to acknowledge the accomplishment. The check was presented to her at a pep fest. She also toured some of the Owatonna science classes.

The students are interested in following the progress of the African project. They are also part of a competition to design the perfect toilet for Africa.

The Southeast District congratulates the students on a job well done!

Metro School Dates and Locations Set for Future Years

The Minnesota American Water Works Association (AWWA) Metro District held its 2008 Water Operators School at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center. The school featured an
afternoon of hands-on training sessions, including leak detection and confined space (shown below).

The 2009 Metro school will be at the Ramada Mall of America (formerly the Thunderbird Hotel and
Convention Center) in Bloomington from Tuesday, April 7 to Thursday, April 9.

In the future, the schools will alternate between the Earle Brown Heritage Center and the Ramada Mall of America. Here is the schedule for the ensuing years:

• April 6-8, 2010, Earle Brown Heritage Center
• April 5-7, 2011, Ramada Mall of America
• April 3-5, 2012, Earle Brown Heritage Center
• April 2-4, 2013, Ramada Mall of America
• April 1-3, 2014, Earle Brown Heritage Center

Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing

Doug Mandy Receives Henry Walraven Award, Then Retires

Doug Mandy (on right) receives Walraven Award from Luther Johnson

Doug Mandy, (on the right in the photo, with Minnesota Rural Water Association [MRWA] chairman Luther Johnson on the left) received the Henry Walraven Award, the highest honor bestowed by MRWA, at the association’s annual conference in St. Cloud in March.

Three weeks later, Mandy ended his 32-year career with the Minnesota Department of Health, the last four-and-a-half years of which have been spent as manager of the department’s Section of Drinking Water Protection.

Mandy has also received the two highest awards given by the Minnesota Section of the American Water Works Association, the Leonard N. Thompson Award and the George Warren Fuller Award.

Water Age and Water Quality

By Kim Larsen, Minnesota Department of Health Engineer
The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Minnesota Department of Health are working on revisions to the Total Coliform Rule. The EPA has decided to strengthen the rule and is taking a closer look at water distribution systems and how deficiencies may have impacts on public health. One aspect of water quality in the distribution system has to do with water age.

We all know that as soon as the water in our systems leaves the pumphouse or the treatment plant, it starts to age. Generally, we think of this as a degradation in water quality. The time water spends in a tower or the amount of time water is in the pipes from the first customer to the last can be substantial. Many systems have never calculated their water age.

What is considered a long time for water to be in the distribution? The EPA gives recommendations of 3, 5, or 7 days depending on the system. Standpipes should have a shorter turnover.

Physical, chemical, and biological changes occur that may lead to taste and odor problems, nitrification, sedimentation, color problems, biofilms, and possible gastrointestinal illness.

There are two types of water degradation in the distribution system. The first is chemical reactions within the bulk water itself, and the other is a reaction between the water and the pipe and/or tank materials.

System operations that affect water quality are slow water velocity and the amount of time water is retained in storage facilities. Slow water velocities lead to sedimentation and stagnation that becomes a safe haven for microbial growth. This lowers chlorine residuals and may cause taste and odor problems. High velocity can cause turbulence or scrubbing, which affects turbidity and creates color issues, taste and odor problems, and possible removal of biofilms. Biofilms can create a special environment for nitrification, bacterial growth, and corrosion. Certain types of piping are more susceptible to corrosion than others. Pipe corrosion can lead to the release of toxic metals, fixture staining, altered pipe hydraulics, and carrying capacity. Corrosion can also lead to noncompliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

In storage tanks, water age is most often due to poor mixing and low daily turnover rates. In this region of the country, we are aware that water use and storage turnover rates vary wildly from one season to the next. Storage tanks also may experience stratification, with old water lying near the bottom of the tank and being drawn out during a period of high water use.

Water age affects water temperature, pH, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids, and hardness. The more water ages, the more opportunity it has to form disinfection by-products. Nitrification is a microbial process in which nitrogen compounds, such as ammonia, are converted to nitrite and nitrate. Reducing residence time and ensuring circulation of water within the distribution can reduce the incidence of nitrification. Biofilms grow and thrive in dead-end plumbing or slow-moving water. Coliform bacteria may colonize in these biofilms, as may other opportunistic pathogens.

How do you improve your water age issue? It helps to start with good system design using American Water Works Association approved standards. Treatment of the source water will improve the quality of the water throughout the distribution system. Less organic matter in the water means less disinfection by-product formation, organic carbon biomass, and chlorine decay as well as decreased turbidity. Removal of iron and manganese means fewer sediments. Further treatment involving pH and alkalinity alteration or the addition of corrosion inhibitors, such as polyphosphates, will stabilize the water.

It is also important to minimize bulk water detention time, making sure there is adequate water mixing in the tank and no stratification. Maintain positive and appropriate system pressure. Control velocities and direction of water flow. Make sure all valves are in the proper position. Be aware of different pressure zones. Flush the distribution system and maintain a storage tank cleaning policy. Line cleaning may be an option, such as pigging or jet flowing, but if piping is beyond its useful life, replace it.

And finally, monitor, monitor, monitor.

Monitor chlorine residuals around the distribution system. Always maintain an adequate disinfection residual. Monitor water temperatures, water color, taste and odor issues, heterotrophic plate counts, disinfection by-products, elevated nitrite/nitrate levels. Logging of customer complaints can be useful in finding out patterns in water quality. Complaints about taste and odor are often traced to stagnant water. All monitoring needs a baseline and then consistent and dedicated follow up. Have a system for tracking your data so you can understand what it means.

Serving the Good Stuff

Press conference to promote tap water
Anne Hunt of the office of St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman, Cara Letofsky, Amber Collett of Corporate Accountability International, Common Roots Café owner Danny Schwartzman, and Scott Pampuch take a swig at a press conference to demonstrate community support for tap water.

City officials and restaurant owners gathered at the Corner Table Restaurant in Minneapolis in April to announce their support of tap water along with plans to reduce or eliminate bottled water use. Corner Table Restaurant owner Scott Pampuch noted the environmental and social impacts of bottled water as well as the high quality of Minneapolis tap water, which he called “an extension” of his restaurant. “The city supports local businesses that are modeling best practices, such as removing bottled water from their menus,” said Cara Letofsky, the policy director for the office of Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak. Letofsky also announced that Minneapolis will kick off a water campaign this summer to build awareness for the quality of the city’s tap water as well as the general issue of choosing tap water over bottled water.

Ground Water Rule Update

By David Rindal
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will begin
implementation of the Ground Water Rule December 1, 2009. Rule requirements are linked to existing Total Coliform Rule (TCR) compliance, Safe Drinking Water Act source water assessment and protection programs, and sanitary survey results. Because of this dependence on existing regulations, corrective actions and/or treatment changes are not expected to be necessary for most systems.

However, there are some steps that public water systems can and should take to enable an easy transition into Ground Water Rule compliance:

  1. Install or confirm the presence of a clean, smooth-nosed sample tap at every well. A TCR (bacteria) positive result will cause “triggered monitoring” from each ground water source in use at the time of the original sample, within 24 hours of result notification. Sample taps must be available upstream of treatment.
  2. Maintain and keep complete well flow records. Identification of all ground water sources in use at the time of a TCR (bacteria) positive sample will be necessary. Seasonal/backup and emergency wells must be included.
  3. Review past MDH sanitary survey findings to identify possible significant deficiencies, which include, but are not limited to, defects, failure, or malfunction of the sources, treatment, storage, or distribution system that may cause the introduction of contamination. Identification of such a deficiency by your MDH District Engineer will require implementation of one or more of the following corrective action alternatives:

    a. Correct all significant deficiencies.
    b. Provide an alternate source of water.
    c. Eliminate the source of contamination.

Generally, normal public water system operations will not create Ground Water Rule compliance issues. However, systems with wells that are more susceptible to bacterial or viral contamination or with serious infrastructure deficiencies should start thinking about what corrective action tools they have at their disposal.

Brushes with Fame in the Water Profession

1925 Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff
J. R. Yde of Sioux Valley Environmental in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, comes from a baseball family. His great-uncle, Emil Yde (third from left in photo above), pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1925 World Series. Emil Yde had a five-year career in the majors, compiling a won-lost record of 49-25.

MDH Annual Report

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released its annual report on the state of drinking water in Minnesota.

The report indicates that drinking water in Minnesota is in good shape, and topics discussed in the Emerging Issues section include an update on emerging contaminants.

The report is on the MDH website.

Past reports, back to 1995, are also available.


Operator training sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota AWWA will be held in several locations this spring.

Upcoming water training

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Updated Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 01:13PM