When it comes to water emergencies, communities must grapple with two distinct types. The first is when there is too much water and the second is when there is too little. In both situations, water treatment dealers will likely be asked to offer their help and expertise.

Too much water typically occurs as a result of a flood or a major weather event and often happens quickly, within hours. The problem of too little water typically develops over time, possibly years, before it is considered an actual emergency that requires immediate action.

When there is too much water a community’s water infrastructure may be damaged, threatening the water supply, and citizens may not be able to access tap water for hours, if not days. With too little water infrastructure is usually not damaged but it may contribute to the problem. This is because so many communities — as many as 700, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — have water infrastructure that is outdated and in need of varying degrees of repair.

Hurricane Sandy and the threat to water supplies

After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Northeast, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proudly tweeted that while power, heat and subways were down or out of service after the storm, “New York City tap water is absolutely safe to drink.” Quite interestingly, the local and national media hardly noticed the mayor’s tweet.

Why? Because Americans take access to safe, reliable drinking water for granted. While safe water was available this time, public and water officials should not assume that water infrastructure in New York City and other cities will necessarily survive another storm, even one less destructive than Sandy.

While nearly every community has some type of plan to deal with a “too much” water emergency—such as having a chain-of-command in place, an emergency communication and response plan or established testing procedures to determine if the water is safe to drink—most of them assume that the basic water infrastructure will be resilient and endure the storm with little or no damage. This may prove to be an incorrect assumption.

Some of New York City’s water infrastructure dates back to the 1840s and parts of it are seriously decaying, as is true in cities around the country. The EPA estimates that it will cost more than $355 billion to simply maintain current water infrastructure over the next few decades; actual updating will cost even more. This level of disrepair is likely the reason an estimated 10 percent of public water is lost due to leaks every year and a major water pipe bursts somewhere in the country about every two minutes.

Because of this situation, communities must be sure they are prepared for a much bigger “too much” water emergency, one in which water infrastructure is seriously damaged. In such an emergency, water treatment dealers may be called in to help local water departments take some of the following steps:

  • Assess the extent of damage to water infrastructure as a result of the “too much” water emergency
  • Communicate the results of the assessment to local and state emergency officials
  • Implement a multi-agency coordination communication plan if more than one government agency is involved with the water emergency
  • Help determine if raw sewage has been released and the amount of damage this may cause
  • Identify a water supply strategy to deal with the situation
  • Evaluate water quality and report findings to all agencies involved
  • Work with local officials to procure water purifying equipment, supplies and materials
  • Provide emergency generators to help remove excess water if facilities are flooded
  • Provide emergency generators to get sewage and treatment plants operational if electrical power is interrupted for an extended period
  • Assist local officials in determining the dollar amount of damages and how long it may take to get water treatment and related infrastructure up and running
  • Encourage local officials to contact federal agencies if the disaster is beyond the scope of local departments.

Atlanta’s 90-day water supply emergency

As mentioned earlier, one of the big differences between an emergency caused by too much water and one caused by too little is that the “too little” water emergency tends to build up over time. Atlanta’s water crisis, which came to a head in 2007, had been building for several years. Finally, when they realized they had less than a 90-day supply of water left, city officials began scrambling to deal with a worst-case scenario of faucets actually running dry.

One of the realities they faced was that there was no quick fix or backup plan in place. Some city officials suggested piping in water from nearby rivers in other states, others said the city had to begin building more water reservoirs and still others suggested a statewide water recycling program should be implemented with recycled water used for just about everything but drinking. All of these plans would have taken time to implement and certainly could not address the problem of a city 90 days short of running dry.

The only true solution to a problem like Atlanta’s is to have some type of orderly emergency plan prepared to reduce water consumption. The first part of this involves long-term planning to ensure current water supplies are filling the growing needs of the community, something Atlanta had not done. If this is not happening, then the other steps in dealing with a water shortage will likely be more severe.

The following is a multiphase, proactive water shortage emergency plan implemented in several communities, which water officials can use as a guide:

  • Phase One: Initially, the public is asked to take part in a voluntary water conservation program. An outreach program begins with releasing new announcements about the water shortage, public education programs on how citizens can conserve water and emergency messages added to water and utility bills.
  • Phase Two: If the water emergency continues and voluntary measures are proving inadequate, mandatory conservation begins. This can include such measures as prohibiting landscape irrigation, noncommercial car washing, water-pressure washing or filling of public and private pools. In addition, water rates are reevaluated and may be increased, with enforcement penalties for those not following the conservation mandate.
  • Phase Three: When mandatory restrictions are not working or the water shortage has escalated, more stringent measures must be implemented. Typically this involves increasing water charges significantly, discontinuing water service to repeat violators, giving water officials the authority to implement additional conservation measures in commercial and industrial settings on an individual and community-wide basis, banning all landscape irrigation and banning all recreational use of water such as in swimming pools. Penalties for violations also increase.

The need for water efficiency

While it is imperative that plans be in place to deal with both types of water emergencies, a long-term issue that must be addressed by water treatment dealers and state and city officials is the need for new ways to use water more efficiently. The focus of water conservation is to use less water during a water shortage. Once the shortage has passed, restrictions are typically lifted and everyone goes back to their old water-using habits.

Water efficiency, on the other hand, is not impacted by current water conditions or emergencies. According to the EPA, “Water efficiency means using improved technologies and practices that deliver equal or better water service with less water.” Perfect examples of this are the new generation of low-flow and no-flow restroom fixtures, water-recycling carpet cleaners, touchless faucets that reduce water waste or HVAC systems, commercial carwashing systems, laundry equipment and other mechanicals that use water more sparingly.

While these new technologies may not help communities through a current water emergency they can help avoid such a crisis in the future. In fact, not actively seeking technologies and methods to use water more efficiently could be the most serious blunder a community can make.

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc., Vista, Calif., maker of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.