Power loss caused serious issues for Brown County water treatment plant

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Operators at the Brown County Water Improvement District's water treatment plant set up portable heaters to prevent equipment from freezing.

Sixteen hours without electricity Monday left the Brown County Water Improvement District’s water treatment plant within about 12 hours of being unable to provide water to customers, water district general manager John Allen said Friday.

Oncor restored power later Monday after Johnny Hayes, a member of the water improvement district’s board of directors, sought help from state Rep. Glenn Rogers, Allen said.

“Late Monday afternoon, (Hayes) contacted state representative Rogers,” Allen said. “Glenn Rogers immediately called me and asked me if there’s anything he could do for us. I asked him to please intervene in any way he could.”

Rogers went on to call the local Oncor representative as well as Gov. Greg Abbott, Allen said.

“Within 30 minutes, (Rogers) sent a message back to me that per the governor’s order, vital infrastructure was not to be shut down," Allen said. "I believe the governor got ahold of somebody with Oncor, and our electricity was restored.”

Speaking at the water treatment plant, Allen described the situation after Oncor shut the power off at 2 a.m. Monday. The electricity remained off for 11 hours, then came back on at 1 p.m.

At 5:30 p.m., the plant was without power once again. “My heart sank when they did that,” Allen said.

The plant went without power for another five hours and was able to resume pumping water at 11:30 p.m. Monday, Allen said.

“We got down to eight feet of water on our (three) tanks on the hill,” Allen said, referring to the hill behind Greenleaf Cemetery. “That’s roughly a million and a half gallons of water on the hill in reserve. So we were not in panic mode yet, but we would not have made it until Tuesday morning — or it would have been real close."

Before the winter storm crippled the state, the water treatment plant was pumping about 4 million gallons a day, and that amount had doubled by Friday — likely because of leaks, Allen said.

“We are extremely lucky,” Allen said. “Right now over 50% of Texas is in a boil-water notice.”

Brookesmith, Bangs and Zephyr were among the Texas communities Friday under boil-water notices.

Allen said operators at the plant had done all they could to prepare for the cold before Monday's power loss.

“Everything was heat-taped and wrapped,” Allen said. “We were ready for the cold weather as much as we could — until Oncor shut us off at 2 a.m. on President’s Day for 11 hours straight.

“You can’t keep heat on anything when you’re off 11 hours straight. We scrambled and found every propane heater we could find —beg, borrow or steal — and just put (heaters) around trying to keep stuff form freezing.”

Once the power was restored late Monday might, operators had to “heat everything up before they could start treating water again,” Allen said. “We had to repair and replace frozen lines before we could fire everything up again. You can’t just throw a switch and turn everything back on.

“I was afraid for fire protection and everything else — somebody’s house burning and not have the water to fight the fire. We dodged a massive bullet.”

Allen said workers at the water plant put in double and triple shifts to make sure the water kept flowing to customers.

“We have done everything possible to keep people in water here that we could possibly do,” Allen said “We have lost and changed out several membrane valves that have frozen during this event. We’ve lost several heaters that were electric that would not come on.

“We have issues with a couple of our big pumps. Of course we have backups for all the big pumps. We’ll be weeks finding out what all is wrong. We have asked all of our customers to curtail usage if possible. The City of Early and the City of Brownwood have worked really well with us on that. They have not filled their tanks in a big draw. They have slowed their fill down to help us catch back up. It is really hard to catch back up when you almost go dry.”

Allen said the water at the water treatment plant fell to a temperature of about 38 degrees.

“We have experienced water that is colder than we’ve ever seen,” Allen said. "The water gets really dense when it gets that cold, and it’s really hard to treat. We’ve never seen this cold of water in this part of Texas before.”