Article | March 3, 2014

Iced! Polar Vortex Lessons From An Ohio Water Utility

By Elana West, Community Outreach Specialist, Avon Lake Regional Water

In early January 2014, the polar vortex enveloped the Great Lakes region, plunging air-temperature highs below zero (and lows much lower). When the vortex passed over Lake Erie, a phenomenon called frazil ice sent an untold number of slender shards of ice to the bottom of the lake—directly into Avon Lake Regional Water’s intake crib. The result: The water supply to more than 200,000 Northeast Ohio residents was in danger of being choked off by ice.

While frazil ice is relatively rare, it affects the Great Lakes region occasionally, including shallow Lake Erie. Ever alert to weather forecasts, Avon Lake Regional Water managers knew that conditions were right for this dangerous phenomenon, and were prepared with the strategies that had been successful in the past. On the evening of January 7, the level in the raw water intake began dropping. Staff quickly reacted with the usual fix, intake flushing. While the pressure did not return to its original state, the situation appeared stable.

Bulk customer protocol

An hour or two later, the water level was still not high enough for comfort, so Avon Lake Regional Water executed their emergency operational procedures, including notification of all bulk water customers via phone of the reduced ability to produce water. The utility conducted regular conference calls throughout the crisis. To avoid a widespread boil alert, the utility and its bulk customers agreed to shut off the feeder lines coming from Avon Lake to keep the system pressure within limits. Each utility would use its own water reserves or open connections until the problem was resolved.

Unbeknownst to anyone on those conference calls, however, one of those bulk customers had already experienced a water main break that would significantly reduce their water stores, forcing the municipality to issue an emergency water-use-cessation bulletin to its customers just hours later.

Reaching out to residential customers

Because water usage was inextricably linked to the problem, there would be no avoiding disaster without a concentrated communications outreach with the retail customers. Widespread bathtub-filling would push the already-failing pressure over the top and have all 200,000 residents boiling water for the next two days. Therefore, to carefully walk the line between breaking through daily communications clutter without creating a tub-filling panic, we sent out a reverse-911 and social media (Facebook/Twitter) call for water conservation only to all residential customers.

A crisis is born

Avon Lake Regional Water’s was still working to solve the intake problem when local Cleveland media heard about that bulk customer’s water-stop alert. The media coverage, short on details, made it sound like all 200,000 customers of Avon Lake Regional Water were on the brink of a water outage, causing a social-media chain reaction that sent Avon Lake Regional Water into full-on crisis communications mode, even though the water crunch was not being experienced in the wider service area. Broadcast media had begun reporting before they understood each water municipality had its own unique water reserves and, therefore was making its own decisions regarding customer water usage requests. One city’s water-stop request did not fit all. As a result, Avon Lake Regional Water spent many hours rectifying that situation, both with traditional media relations, as well as social media relations. Print, radio, and TV were all on the list, and our chief utilities executive, previously untelevised, conducted 20 television and print interviews over the course of the two-day crisis. Our Facebook page was given as the go-to source for up-to-date information on the frazil ice event.

Our bulk customers’ customers began calling us for a situation update. Many more of our own customers found us on Facebook to tell us about their friends in other cities who’d gotten stop-water-use calls in their cities and wanted to know what they should do about it. Once that happened, we began posting regular Facebook resolution updates to keep our customers informed. Our Facebook ‘friends’ shared each status updates with their friends, and soon the social media conversation changed. The word was getting out. The phone calls all but stopped, and social media conversations took off.

A diver prepares to install a temporary intake suction line in the frozen lake.

It takes a village

Back at the water filtration plant, this episode of frazil ice was proving unusually difficult to clear. The usual fixes seemed to work initially, but not for long. Flushing found footing, but finally failed. Brine brought early benefit, but ultimately bombed. Avon Lake Regional Water managers continued to brainstorm other solutions. The result: A plan to circumvent the current water intake system and build a new one—in time to save the region from running out of water.

A road had to be built, and fast. A local excavation company that works regularly with us brought heavy construction equipment to negotiate the steep grade from our water plant to Lake Erie and carve road into it. A local pump company was contacted to inquire about large diesel-powered pumps, able to withstand harsh winter conditions and be hooked up to generators. At least one pump large enough was available immediately, with more to come. Next, a suitably large, cold-weather friendly, easily portable/assembled water line had to be found. Managers worked furiously to source the necessary supplies while the utility’s outside crew prepared to work on a water line of another kind, one that sat on top of a lake, not underground. Employees usually working on tree lawns and reading meters found themselves on ice cover 250 feet out on Lake Erie, cutting ice and working with a diver to place the new intake lines. By 5 a.m. the next day, all pumps and lines were in place, and the plant was able to both meet demand and refill emptied tanks.

Second, help came from residents and neighboring water utilities. The communication was working: Demand slowed. For the municipalities running low on their stores, water was able to be sourced from other utilities. As a stop-gap effort, even a fire truck was employed to keep the water flowing in that aforementioned water-main-break municipality.

One problem, two solutions: When operations meets communications

Avon Lake Regional Water used a combination of quickly devised approaches to get water flowing and correct the flawed water-shortage story. Social media delivered calm messages of water conservation, sending Facebook messages through the night (to thankful response from ratepayers) about what was happening and what Avon Lake Regional Water was doing about it, including sharing photos from the MacGuyver-like solution at the filtration plant that averted a widespread boil alert. Avon Lake Regional Water’s Facebook likes went from 200 before the event to nearly 2,000 after. While Avon Lake Regional Water is a small utility, we use social media daily, and this event underscored our commitment to the following:

Don’t be afraid to consider any alternative. Think Apollo 13 or MacGuyver. Expanding your list of operational solutions beyond the norm might be your best solution.

Talk early, talk often. The moniker “silent service” was coined because water delivery is such an underappreciated and taken-for-granted service, but the phrase also doubles as the old-school approach to utilities’ communication. This event proved, to us at least, utility-to-user communication has a definite upside—it helped us avoid a widespread water outage.

Embrace social media. Social media gives us opportunities to communicate in ways the water industry has never had before. Its exponential impact in times of crisis defies description. While many in our industry are still reticent to embrace social media, the truth is, it’s not going anywhere and customers use it more and more regularly than any other information source today. When compared to a less-severe frazil ice scare a decade ago, before the widespread use of social media, the positive impact of communication via social media on our customers’ behavior was significant.

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