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Local State of Emergency Ends

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Although the water is again flowing at normal rates and the state of emergency was lifted in the Town of Swan River on Friday (Feb. 2), there is still work to be done to get the municipality’s water system back up to par.
Town of Swan River Deputy Mayor Lance Jacobson has been the spokesperson for the Town throughout the crisis and he explained the issues that were faced, solutions that were put into play and the work that still lies ahead.
“On Saturday evening (Jan. 27) we, as councillors, were notified that there was an issue at the water treatment plant,” he said, noting that the situation soon turned serious. “There was only a very small amount of water coming into the plant from the wells.
“Through Saturday night and into the morning our crews worked to try to determine the issue. At around 6 a.m. on Sunday we met and received word that the line between the reservoir at the treatment plant and the wells was not the problem, it was something in the wells themselves.”
Both of the Town’s actively used wells had failed and workers were able to determine that there was something wrong with the pump system in Well No. 2 but they couldn’t quite isolate the problem in Well No. 3.
“The motor was pushing water but it wasn’t getting through the line and they didn’t know why that was happening,” said Jacobson.
“We knew then that we were going to have to purchase some new pumps and perhaps motors. And, we needed to declare a local state of emergency and have our residents start conserving water immediately.”
With no wells actively pumping water into the reservoir, the Town looked to their backup well, Well No. 1, to produce.
“It hadn’t been used for quite a few years and we didn’t know what the quality of water would be down there,” Jacobson said. “The water was very dirty when we were first bringing it up but they got it cleared out and we were lucky it worked well and filled the reservoir as quick as it did.”
While Well No. 3 was installed in 2001 with more horsepower and the ability to pump water a bit quicker, Well No. 1 and Well No. 2 date back to 1974 when they were first installed. Although the well itself is older, No. 2 had received a new motor and pump in 1994, which had been functioning properly to date.
“On Well No. 2 both the pump and motor failed,” said Jacobson. “We are pretty sure that rock had gone through the pump and motor, which put it out of commission.
“The motor showed signs of overheating and the pump had holes in the wall. We have also put cameras down the well to inspect the cribbing and found that it has failed. We will need to decommission it and re-drill a new Well No. 2.
“This is going to be in the works as soon as possible,” he continued. “Our team is sourcing contractors and getting the necessary approvals from the province. Once we can get a new well drilled and ready we do have a pump and motor ready to go in.”
The issue in Well No. 3 was much simpler but could have had just as bad of an outcome.
“It was strictly mechanical,” Jacobson said. “There is a large coupler that connects the drop pipe to the pump. Where it joins in to the pump, the metals failed and separated.
“When they pulled it out of the ground it was hanging on by just inches of steel. Somehow it held and we were so lucky to get it out cleanly. If it would have come apart it would have fallen straight down the well and smashed through the screens at the bottom, forcing us to drill yet another new well.”
Once the issues were determined, plans were immediatly put into motion to source parts and contract engineers and well specialists to fix the issues and get at least one well back up and running.
“By Tuesday evening all the needed people and parts were in transit, coming from places like Texas and Chicago, and having to pass through customs before making the way to Swan River,” said Jacobson.
“It took into the night on Thursday (Feb. 1) to get Well No. 3 working and then they had to pump water out and make sure it was good before they could put it into commission. That started close to morning and we made the announcement that water use could resume as normal as soon as we could.”
The concern of fire suppression was also on the forefront of many minds during the crisis but Jacobson reassures that, while it was always a concern, water levels never got into a state that would have been considered dangerous.
“Our fire department had contingency plans in place – our municipal partners were notified and on standby and the water providers here in town had their trucks filled with water, parked in a warm building, and ready to go in the event they were needed,” added Jacobson.
“We know that some people did an outstanding job (of helping to make sure we conserved as much water as possible) and hotels and restaurants went as far as closing to using bottled water and paper plates. A lot did the best that they possibly could.
“We were overwhelmed with the number of volunteer offers that we received,” he continued. “There were people from across the province and the country calling to see how they could assist.
“And, I don’t think I can stress more how amazing the guys on the front line are. We have a good crew that manages our plant – they have received awards for doing so – and they have a huge responsibility to bring safe water to us all.”
Jacobson knows that some might question if this was all preventable but, as they say, hindsight is always 20/20.
“There’s a possibility that it could have been found before the issues went this far but we could have also spent a lot of money and put systems out to find nothing,” he said. “Even a week before they would not have seen any fail at all.
“We don’t know how or why this happened at the same time. The engineers and contractors can’t believe it. The system was toggling between the two wells and receive water just fine until very shortly before the issue was detected.”
The municipality has most recently been focusing their money and attention to bring 60-65 year infrastructure up to date.
“We have upgraded all our lift stations to where they need to be – the Heyes Street station is done, the Sixth Avenue one will be completed soon and Ross Street has received new pumps and motors,” Jacobson said.
“It’s all about money and these things need to be spread over a period of time. But, by the end of this year it will all be upgraded.”
Despite the inability to predict such failures, council will be looking at ways to make sure they are prepared in the future for such a situation.
“Now that we have gone through this and our staff and council have learned a lot from it we are going to be reviewing and checking to see what we need to be doing, moving forward,” he said. “There’s all kinds of new technology and now is the opportunity to see if we can find ways to benefit us.
“We were also lucky to get Well No. 1 going and after everything is done and No. 2 and No. 3 wells are back in order we will pull everything up from No. 1 and make sure it is in good shape to continue to be used as a backup.”
Issues like this don’t come without a price tag but the Town does have measures in place to cover the costs.
“The water utility takes care of itself and it has to have the dollars there to maintain and upgrade,” said Jacobson. “We do, however, have reserves in the utility that will take care of emergency situations like this.
“We don’t know right now exactly what the dollars and cents are because it is too early. Once we have those we will be very transparent and our residents will see it all. But, at the time being, we are confident that we have the money in the reserves to take care of the costs.”
Now that the crisis has passed, Jacobson said that council will remain as transparent as they have been through the emergency.
“We took this very seriously and we knew what needed to be done to get this back to normal,” he added.
“As a council, the situation really plays on your mind and brings a lot of stress. But, each member of council had a responsibility and a role that we came together and did.”