Are Nashville's two water treatment facilities adequate for the job?

Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 10:05pm
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Eric England/SouthComm 

It is unfortunate — and perhaps coincidental, or even ironic — that a massive flood was required to focus attention on Nashville’s two water treatment facilities. In May 2010, Davidson County’s two Metro and three small, privately owned water treatment facilities garnered more media attention within one week than they had during the previous 30 years.

The first week of that historic month was grim. Buckling under the pressure of the heaving floodwaters, the 33-year-old city-operated K.R. Harrington facility in Donelson was out of commission. That left Metro’s seemingly ageless Omohundro facility, which has been in operation since 1929, to provide Nashvillians with their water. 

Compounding the challenge was the drama of it all. Some 13 inches of rain soaked the city over a mere two days (May 1-2), creating rapidly rising waters that had the Cumberland River crest at about 58 feet and resulted in 10 deaths in Davidson County. The sheriff’s office had inmates handling sandbag work, while the national news media, albeit tardily, descended about Music City. When the waters receded and the damage was assessed, officials estimated about $2 billion in destruction.

While the drama focused on Nashvillians and their needs, another unfolded. Mere days after the flood hit, Metro’s water reserve stood at just 48 percent capacity. Harrington was not functioning, Omohundro was under stress and working double time, and Mayor Karl Dean was calling for citizens to greatly reduce their water consumption. 

Though Omohundro survived and Harrington got back online after several weeks, a year later the question remains: Are two public facilities sufficient for a city the size of Nashville?

Alan Schwendimann, director of the Division of Water Supply of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said plant capacity — as opposed to number of plants — is the key to measuring. 

“Nashville’s current system is sufficient to support the needs,” Schwendimann said. “The neighborhoring facilites [in Davidson County] bring on flexibility and a safeguard.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, of which Metro Water Services is a member, does not keep statistics on the number of treatment facilities in each of its member cities.

Sonia Harvat, Metro Water Services spokeswoman, said the city is in good shape with Harrington and Omohundro. 

“Chicago has one [public water treatment facility], Louisville has two and Knoxville has one,” Harvat, said. “There could be multiple plants owned by both private and local government that provide service within a county. Davidson County, as an example, has Metro, Harpeth Valley Utility District, Madison Suburban Utility District and Old Hickory Utility that supply customers within the county lines.” 

Officials at the county’s three small non-Metro water treatment facilities credited Metro Water staff for their efforts in stabilizing the system and for keeping the historic Omohundro facility functioning. 

“Nashville did the job themselves,” said Cindy Ellis, general manager of one private utility, northern Davidson County-based Madison Suburban Utility District. 

One year later, the agency has completed upgrades to both the Harrington and Omohundro plants, while the county’s three private facilities have been repaired and updated as well. Those improvements fortified the facilities just as this year’s rain and flood season has arrived.

Harvat said the department undergoes an annual “sanitary survey” as administered by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and directed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Our last review was in February, and we received a perfect score of 100 percent,” Harvat said.

Harvat said Metro Water has taken various precautions to address possible flooding this spring at Harrington and Omohundro. (The agency also operates three wastewater treatment plants within the county.)

“Some mitigation projects have been constructed with additional projects in the design process,” she said. “For example, plans have been developed for each plant with respect to sandbagging, equipment removal and pump staging. We have also worked with the [U.S. Geological Survey], and river level monitors have been installed at each MWS facility.”

Since last May, the department has hired consultants to “help with mitigation projects to reduce risk and damage in subsequent events to MWS and its customers,” Harvat said. Some have been completed, while
others remain in the planning stages. In addition, Harvat said her agency has purchased new and upgraded instruments to measure water clarity and to control the water filtration operation. 

In an effort to best combat another worst-case scenario, Harvat said her agency both works with and communicates with several utilities and remains active in water professional organizations. 

“Certainly, I think last year’s flood demonstrated a tremendous test and how well they are prepared for that type event,” TDEC’s Schwendimann said. 

Schwendimann said TDEC staff in the department’s Nashville field office interact with city officials frequently.

“We have been in communication with Metro” in preparation for any rain-related challenges in May, he said.

Davidson County’s three private water treatment utilities have been active post-flood, too. Ellis said her staff is working with Metro to connect for emergencies. She added that the Madison district recently underwent a $1.6 million treatment plant improvement project.

“It involved issues that will give us a quicker turnaround in treated water to get ready for new standards,” she said. 

John Brown, general manager of western Davidson County-based Harpeth Valley Utilities District, said his facility has undergone repairs for damage it received due to the flood. Harpeth also awaits $5 million in funding from the federal government for upgrades. 

“We knew it would be some time after we met with FEMA [following the flood],” Brown said. “We went to the bond market and received $10 million to start repairs. I would say our facility is at about 95 percent where we need it to be. But we’re fully operational.”

The flood spurred Old Hickory Utility District to be more “proactive” with sewer maintenance, according to General Manager David Amburgey.

“We’re investing in some technology, as far as satellite-controlled mechanisms for sewer pumps,” he said.