NEWPORT — Although the city of Newport is currently able to produce adequate treated water for commercial and residential users, the city council Monday evening voted to extend the city’s emergency declaration through Aug. 17.
Newport first declared a water emergency on June 24, when the city experienced water production problems caused by the plugging of filters at the water treatment plant. This resulted in an inability of the city to keep a sufficient level in its water storage tanks. The problem was severe enough that the city imposed water restrictions on June 26, and also asked industrial users, including the seafood processing plants on the Bayfront, to halt water use until the city could recover water in its storage facilities.
Industrial water users were given a green light to resume operations a couple of days later, and the city brought two sand filter trucks — portable water treatment units — to bolster the amount of water being treated at the plant.
The city has been working with Pall Corporation, the manufacturer of the membrane filters used at the plant, and HDR Engineering to identify the cause of the plugged filters, but so far, it remains a mystery.
“We have made progress in addressing filter cleaning in order to provide for a sufficient flow of water to deal with our industrial and residential users,” City Manager Spencer Nebel told the city council on Monday. “We were able to eliminate water restrictions last week. We did, over the weekend, have to resort to some water from Seal Rock in South Beach. We had high usage there. Part of it was a fire that was going on, but we’re kind of analyzing what was going on there that required us to use some additional water from Seal Rock.”
Nebel said it also took longer than anticipated for the mobile sand filters to be tied into the treatment plant. “They had some challenges during the past week in getting those set up and operational, but they were tied in operationally today (Monday) for the first time for providing water,” he said. “The good news is that we’re able to produce water to meet the current needs. The good news is that we have the sand filters that are now operational.”
But the bad news, Nebel reported, is that the cause of the problem is still unknown. He said Pall, the filter manufacturer, spent a considerable amount of time studying the problem early on, and “they also are spending time with us now to take a look and work through the filter cleaning in a way that will restore water quicker than what we’ve had before. But there is still a problem in getting these filter cartridges totally clean, and they re-foul fairly quickly after they’re done.”
Nebel said Pall has done “the equivalent of an autopsy on one of these units.” They have also provided a number of cleaning processes that have helped the city keep up with the needed water production, “but they have not yet identified a specific cause of why we’re getting this filter plugging going on.” He expects to have additional information this week.
Until they have some answers, Nebel recommended the city council extend the emergency declaration until Aug. 17 — it had been set to expire on July 20. “That gives us the necessary latitude in addressing any emergency situations that may occur, including expediting the expenditures necessary to address the problem,” he said.
City Councilor Dietmar Goebel asked what kind of arrangement the city has with the Seal Rock Water District for obtaining treated water, as was needed last weekend. “Is Seal Rock charging us for the water they’re giving us right now, or has there been some kind of conversation back and forth over the years that we provide them water when they’re down, and they provide us water when we’re down?” he asked.
Nebel said in the past, the two entities have simply kept track of how much water was transferred from one to the other. “When we started out, we had a credit with Seal Rock because we had given them more water than we had used,” he said. “I know that credit is gone now ... but at this point we’ve not been invoiced by Seal Rock for that water. We’ll get some numbers on where we’re at with the water that has gone from Seal Rock’s water system into our water system … and be able to share that at a future meeting with the council.”
Goebel also asked about the costs being incurred by the city. “This is a real expensive proposition for us,” he said. “It looks like we’re spending quite a bit of money not only on new filter banks, but also on sand filters and engineering for that.” The water filters have a 20-year warranty, he said. “Is there some kind of warranty issue that we’re going to be getting back some money for all of the expenditures we’re doing?”
“We believe that there’s going to be potentially an adjustment on that purchase price,” Nebel replied. The key question, however, is whether the problem was caused by a defect in the filters or by some external factor, “and we don’t have the answer to that question yet. If the filters fail, there is obviously a reduction in cost that we would have to pay for them. If something external caused the problems to the filters, then that’s probably not going to be a warranty issue with the filters.”
The city has already purchased two new filters for the water treatment plant, and Councilor Beatriz Botello asked Nebel if those have been installed yet.
“The new ones have not been installed because we couldn’t take down the plant until we had this second source of water (mobile sand filters) without shutting down our industry,” he said. “The other thing, we didn’t want to install the new filters until we know what the problem is because we didn’t want to put brand new filters in and have the same thing happen to those filters as the existing filters.
“So again, we are in the process of working with experts in the water world to try to determine what exactly has changed this summer that has caused this particular problem. And until we have something more definitive, there’s more questions out there than answers,” Nebel said.
All members of the city council who were involved in Monday’s meeting voted in support of a motion to extend the emergency declaration through Aug. 17.