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Close call for Toledo water illustrates repair needs

System trouble puts focus on old problem


Andy McClure, staff engineer and acting administrator of maintenance at the Toledo Water Treatment Plant in East Toledo, watches as water leaks from an actuator on a 1940's era valve at the plant, Thursday, August 18, 2011.

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Just over two weeks ago, according to public utilities officials, Toledo's water supply had a narrow brush with catastrophe.

A pump station, the one the city depends on to bring in its raw water supply from Lake Erie, experienced a system failure and had to be shut down.

The incident took place Aug. 5 and prompted an almost four-hour race against the clock to get the system back on line before emergency water supplies ran out.

Luckily for Toledo and the water department, the system was fixed in time.

If the repairs had taken just a few hours longer or the shutdown had happened in a period of peak water consumption, authorities could have been forced to allow potentially contaminated water into the city's pipes. If that had happened, 500,000 people in and around Toledo would have been boiling water for months until the system was sanitized, officials said.

While an immediate crisis was averted, public utilities director David Welch said the pump station failure is symptomatic of a much wider decline in Toledo's water system. Years of shrinking funds have pushed utilities officials to postpone upgrades to the city's water treatment infrastructure and some of the parts are starting to break down, he said. Even with Toledoans paying 9 percent more for their water this year and for each of the next three years, the water system will need a much larger infusion of money to stave off a crisis, the director indicated.

"Unfortunately we haven't put enough money into updating or replacing the system for years and now it's come time to pay the piper," Mr. Welch said glumly during a recent interview at his office in downtown Toledo. "We're at that critical point. We need to start putting money into this system now."

Where that money will come from is a point of contention. In addition to the 9 percent water rate hike, the City of Toledo has raised sanitary-sewer rates by 3 percent this year and added a surcharge to pay for a federally mandated sewer upgrade.

In June, the Bell administration submitted a proposal to increase storm-water rates by 9.9 percent, although the city appears to have shied away from that request for now. Further rate increases would likely anger financially strapped consumers.

Nevertheless, a request for more water-rate hikes is almost certainly in the cards and could occur as soon as the end of this year, Mr. Welch said.

Earlier this month, the Fitch ratings agency downgraded the city's sewer and water-revenue outlook from stable to negative. The ratings agency based its assessment on the utility department's ability to pay for work to its water and sewer systems using its income and cash reserves.

Those reserves are at historically low levels, records show. In addition, the department's income is down because of a decrease in water consumption resulting from the economic slowdown and the use of household fixtures aimed at water conservation, Mr. Welch indicated.

"If there's a major catastrophe, I'm not sure where we're going to find the funds to take care of it," he said. "We don't have the cash, but our capital needs are probably the greatest they've ever been."

At the Collins Park Treatment Plant in East Toledo, maintenance workers are doing their best to keep up with an endless demand for repairs, plant manager David Leffler said. The plant is more than half a century old, with one section built in 1941 and the other in 1956. Some of the piping and machines have been replaced since that time, but much remains from the original plant construction.

During a recent tour, Mr. Leffler and staff engineer Andy McClure pointed out cracks in the ceiling over water filtration basins that have led to concrete clumps falling into the water.

The clumps don't affect the quality of the final water product, but they can clog the machines at the plant, prompting workers to shut basins, Mr. McClure said. Anyone entering the facility has to wear a hard hat in case they're hit with falling debris.

The ceiling is slated to be replaced soon, but Mr. Leffler said that $3.6 million project has forced him to postpone other needed repairs throughout the rest of the plant. Walking through the facility, he and Mr. McClure pointed to rusted and dripping pipes, ancient-looking valves, and outdated equipment they said is nearing the end of its life.

"We do what we can," Mr. Leffler said, putting his hand on a very rusted piece of steel that holds up a giant valve. "We can replace that with our in-house crews, but it comes to the point where you can't do that anymore."

Over at the pump station in Jerusalem Township where the failure occurred Aug. 5, everything is running smoothly, Mr. Leffler said.

The shutdown resulted from a breakdown in a cooling system that protects the pumps from overheating and has been repaired adequately, he assured. The cooling system is scheduled to be replaced next year, he added.

Among Toledo's city councilmen, the news of the pump station failure has stirred considerable unease.

Joe McNamara, who heads the utilities and public service committee, said a serious breakdown to the water treatment system would be devastating for the city.

"The stakes are obviously very high," Mr. McNamara said. "That sort of problem is very scary because the City of Toledo's core city service is to deliver people clean water. If the system fails, the city becomes unlivable."

Councilman D. Michael Collins voiced skepticism over the extent of the problem.

He recently asked the Public Utilities Department to send him a detailed report on the Aug. 5 incident. Until he receives that, he said, he will reserve judgment on the severity of the water plant's troubles. Mr. Collins also indicated he believes similar issues may have occurred at the pump station before.

Meanwhile, Mr. Welch said he awaits results of an independent assessment of his department's finances and critical infrastructure needs. The report should be ready in a month and will help the department decide which projects to prioritize and what kind of a rate increase to seek, he said.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.

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