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Water Warriors: Honoring ordinary heroes

Locations: News Published

By J.P. Frale

Special to The Sopris Sun

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Considering the significant challenges we have faced as a nation, as a state and as a community in 2020 and 2021, the following real life story — about a group of dedicated individuals thrust into uncharted territory — inspires admiration. Our heroes were forged into a team that remains intact today. 

The story is a testament to their dedication to careers in service to a community, in this case: Glenwood Springs. Take some time to learn the story of these water and wastewater employees, a compelling adventure of nine people who made an unbelievable effort, time and again, during the Grizzly Creek Fire and more recent Glenwood Canyon debris flows.

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Grizzly Creek Fire, August 2020

Kathleen Knight arrived early to Plant Operations Superintendent Warren Hays’ office to discuss an opening at the Glenwood Springs Wastewater Treatment Facility. At that time, COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic for nearly eight months. The job would require her to split time between the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant (RMWTP) and the Wastewater Treatment Facility, but she was confident her experience and training were needed, and this could be a career step up for her. 

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So, Knight was anxious to impress the interview panel with her desire to try new things and learn on the fly, should she ever be counted on to do so. Little did she know how prophetic those thoughts were. As she left Hays’ office, she noticed the betta fish in a small tank on the shelf. She commented about the fish, and Hays responded with a wry smile, “The boys in the plant named him Corona.” 

August 10, 2020 proved to be anything but a normal Monday for the citizens of Glenwood Springs, the I-70 commuters and, most certainly, for the RMWTP crew. The next 14 days saw the Grizzly Creek Fire erupt daily due to remote terrain that harbored incessant hot spots that neither wildland firefighters nor the aerial assault slurry bombers and helicopter water drops could tame. This resulted in the high alert status deemed necessary to save the Glenwood Springs stored water resource if the city itself began to burn. The fire also provoked a complete shutdown of I-70 through the Glenwood Canyon as well as the evacuation of the residential area of No Name. 

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This event was just the latest in an extremely difficult time with city crews facing furloughs, pay decreases and staffing shortages. How to address such a scenario within the context of a worldwide pandemic could not be found in the employee handbook. Instead, these dedicated team members were literally going to write the standard operating procedure with their sweat and unparalleled efforts. This would take true grit, determination, steeling of emotions and, possibly, an answered prayer or two.

Fire in the Canyon

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The Field Operations infrastructure team huddled up to plan shift assignments on day one of the Grizzly Creek Fire. They needed to strategize and prioritize how, when and where to support potential weak points of the city infrastructure should it become stressed or collapse. 

Grizzly Creek is the primary water source for the city of Glenwood Springs, but it is not the only one. Through a system designed to draw water from the No Name Creek drainage year-round, as well as the Roaring Fork River intake during emergencies, some assumptions and contingency plans needed to be considered. Backups for backups of assets like equipment, manpower, access and communication were all discussed and some were implemented. 

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The Water Treatment (WT) team and Field Operations (FO) team are headed by Hays and Mike Hoffman, respectively, and both men have very skilled and highly-trained support staff. Normally, that is for problems like a pump failure or a water main break, things that take four to eight hours to repair and then the normal routine returns. This time, they learned quickly that anything routine was a luxury and not to be associated with a wildfire under zero containment. Being able to pivot fast with pinpoint accuracy was necessary to respond to events outside of their control. It was their full responsibility to keep water in the tanks of Glenwood Springs and, ultimately, the homes of its residents. 

Early on during the Grizzly Creek Fire, daily events were foretold by billowing smoke clouds rising from the canyon like an atomic bomb had just detonated. Afternoon winds would pick up and cause a flash of racing fire fronts that burned at unbelievable speed and in erratic directions. Local traffic would stop while pedestrians craned their necks and looked skyward, snapping photos and making cell phone calls about what they were seeing.

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Department heads of public works, engineering and city management met and consulted with outside experts for damage control, repair, rebuilding infrastructure if needed, plus requesting support from State and Federal agencies. But the boots on the ground were worn by the WT and FO crews. 

As adrenaline-inducing as these first few days were, they were only the beginning for our public servants, called on again and again to perform their assigned duties without fail and improvising when needed. They were and are trained for a purpose that is ultimately all about the public’s safety and well-being. 

Members of the RMWTP and Wastewater Treatment Facility had the opportunity to comment on some of the plans being submitted to city staff concerning the designs for upgrades to the water treatment plant, as well as replacement equipment and systems. Questions immediately circulated about what may lay ahead for the city’s drinking water supply in the aftermath of the fire. 

The design of new filtration equipment that would replace the existing pre-sedimentation equipment at the No Name Cave, and the same at the RMWTP, was done at a breakneck pace by highly specialized and experienced water treatment engineers at Carollo Engineering, led by Leanne Miller. 

At this point of the Grizzly Creek Fire, the WT team was tested and proved resilient, proved stalwart. They proved to themselves that their accomplishments were something to be proud of, not for pride’s sake, but for the tactical and professional attitude the team was exhibiting. It didn’t matter if someone had 30 years’ experience, or someone had every certification and license that is required at their position; everybody had to be all in, and they were. As unprecedented as events were, and with the fire subdued enough to reopen I-70, these events were baby steps for what was ahead, some 10 months in the future.

Filtration Improvements Phase 1, January 2021

Moltz Construction was contracted by the city of Glenwood Springs just as the ink was drying on the design drawings. Moltzs’ superintendent was Joe Anya and he was going to need every bit of his 35 years of construction experience to get the project from start to finish with a timeline so tight it squeaked. Materials were ordered with fingers crossed that potential supply chain slowdowns and availability would not become an issue. That was fun and wishful thinking. The confident and competent construction crews arrived and, within a day, began the demolition phase at both the No Name Cave and RMWTP. Mike Hedrick, chief operator at the RMWTP, was expecting Justin Ziegler, a new hire, to help fill the void on their roster. The crew was one man down because José Diaz, another seasoned treatment plant operator, was training with the National Guard and in six weeks was to be deployed to Africa. 

Unfortunately, Ziegler became the first of the RMWTP crew to contract COVID. Before even starting his first day, he was stuck recuperating at home for the required 10 days, leaving the RMWTP crew essentially down by two members. There are no stand-by people to take the place of these essential workers. They each have specific duties to perform and will overlap when needed, assuring the citizens of Glenwood Springs have clean water at the turn of a faucet handle. The water is clean only if the pipes are clean, something Hoffman and his FO crew would be tested to maintain some 9 months later.

During the construction of the RMWTP improvements, Hedrick and the plant crew were forced to operate the plant using half the normal equipment and dealing with the modified operations required by the construction schedule. Adding to that stress were irritating notifications by suppliers to the contractor that “there were delays in delivery” or “location of parts shipped is unknown” or “shipping logistics have changed due to labor shortage of long-haul truckers,” etc. 

Hedrick’s operation schedule trumped the construction crews’ due to his team’s commitment to meet the demand for clean water for the residents of Glenwood Springs. But he remained as flexible and accommodating as possible. This required additional adjustments by the RMWTP crew as they provided temporary workarounds, increased demands on the equipment that remained in operation and additional pressure on the short-staffed team. 

Additionally, the construction team making improvements to the No Name Cave filtration basin and to the RMWTP sedimentation and filtration building systems had to have their work completed by spring runoff — in four short months. Amazingly, the construction schedule remained in line with the needed full startup date, but only the first of two phases were complete. 

There was no time to celebrate, or even for a quick breather, and both the construction crew and the RMWTP crew knew it. The WT team doubled down and planned for a complete system shut down that started at the intake structure on No Name Creek. The tension was palpable as late winter cold wet weather moved in, and access to the No Name Cave became more treacherous than usual. The switchover took place between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. the next day and went without a hitch thanks to Anya’s crew and the WT crew working in tandem for a successful outcome to Phase One.

Filtration Improvements Phase 2, March 2021

Hays and Horacio Diaz from the FO’s team contracted COVID and were in quarantine. Phase 2 of the filtration improvements was underway and supplier-related issues were still plaguing the schedule, requiring weekly reassessment. Hays, Hedrick and the WP team talked daily with the contractor to assess what was needed of them, how they needed to respond and what the logistics were to keep a reliable water supply for the city. These WP team members could not work from home, flex shift, take extended time off or even get sick. They were essential in every sense of the word. 

Diaz was not deployed to Africa and came back, only to step into the middle of the tornado of construction activity at the RMWTP. He was welcomed back with open arms by the team and caught up quickly with the new way of doing things, which was like running while threading a needle. Anya, Miller and Hays kept their eyes on the target date of spring runoff — about two months away — and had integral support by the WP team to assist and accommodate the contractor as much as possible. Charlie Terrel with CT Electric Automation was responsible for making the final connection for system controls from old equipment to new equipment.

Troubleshooting these controls was excruciatingly complicated, but the WP team had what they needed. To the credit of everyone involved with the filtration improvements project, the team hit the target and the RMWTP was fully online by spring runoff.

Learning new ways of operations and testing the shiny new system could only be gained by hands-on experience by the WP crew, and they dove headfirst into the challenge. With the Grizzly Creek Fire a hellish memory and the RMWTP and No Name Cave improvements complete, COVID was still with them, and bigger headaches were ahead. The consequences of the damage to the watershed that includes Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek would not be fully realized for another three months. 

Part two of this two-part story will be published in next week’s edition of The Sopris Sun. 

Tags: #Glenwood Springs #Grizzly Creek Fire #J.P. Frale #Mike Hoffman #Warren Hays #Water Warriors
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