Contact: Forest Peterson, 320-441-6072
Willmar, Minn. ― Dramatic images of rescue and clean-up after severe storms and floods often miss an underlying story: What’s happening with a community’s safe drinking water and sewage treatment?
After a severe windstorm June 17 knocked out power to Grove City, the local utility department had no choice but to bypass raw sewage into a wetland adjacent to a small lake. A week later, the deluge in northern Minnesota overwhelmed public water utilities in dozens of communities.
In the aftermath of such emergencies, municipal utility crews often could use extra help in getting basic public services up and running. Many were able to get help by calling MnWARN, the Minnesota Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network.
MnWARN is a formal emergency response program in Minnesota for mutual aid for water, wastewater and stormwater utilities that have sustained physical damage from natural or man-made disasters. It counts about 270 members, most of which are municipalities. The Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA) provides administrative services and maintains the MnWARN website.
After the Sunday, June 17, storm hit, Grove City faced nearly a week without power. A city generator was able to power the city’s water supply. But the pumps activating sewage treatment sat quiet.
The following Monday the city administrator called MnWARN, and help arrived Tuesday.
“All I had to do was show them where we needed help, and they took the bull by the horns. Things really fell into place,” said Dave Martins, 37-year veteran of Grove City public works.
The city of Paynesville supplied a large, portable generator to get the sewage treatment plant running again. Willmar and Litchfield sent utility workers. Hutchinson and Montrose sent crews to help with the cleanup — trees, debris and downed power lines. And several other communities called to offer help.
“You have to give a lot of credit to a lot of people. It worked out well,” Martins said. “At first I was skeptical, but now I’m a believer.”
“MnWARN and MRWA have had a busy two weeks, starting with Grove City,” said Ruth Hubbard, Minnesota Rural Water Association administrator. “We are basically working with local utilities to see what assistance they need. Many cities have called to volunteer.”
The floods in northern Minnesota brought initial calls from Thomson, Carlton, Wrenshall, Moose Lake, Barnum, Willow River, Sturgeon Lake and Kettle River.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of damage,” Hubbard says. “Thomson completely lost their water supply.”
Frank Stuemke, who normally spends his time at MRWA training wastewater plant operators, worked long hours with MnWARN directors Marty Glynn, Dave Isaacson and Brent Powers on the deployment of large pumps from other communities. “We had to bypass sewage at first, and then work to keep the systems pumped down so they could start the cleanup,” Stuemke said.
After helping in Thomson, Carlton and Wrenshall, Stuemke moved on to Barnum and Moose Lake, hauling the MRWA emergency response trailer stocked with portable pumps, generators and other equipment. Several of the communities needing assistance signed up with MnWARN on the spot, he said.
Pumps and other assistance came from neighboring communities and even farther ― Braham, Cohasset, Fridley, North St. Paul, Remer, St. Cloud and St. Michael, among them.
“We [MRWA and MnWARN] have good relations with operators, so the assistance went very smoothly,” Stuemke said.
According to Hubbard, some groups of cities have regional mutual aid agreements, but in general, local utilities have not been as organized as other services, such as fire departments. Prior to the recent flooding, MnWARN has been activated several times in the past two years.
“Every response is different. You learn a lot as you go,” Hubbard said.
The aid procedure begins with a call to the Minnesota Duty Officer (800-422-0798). The officer calls the MnWARN district representative, who contacts the community to find out its needs, then contacts other communities to respond.
The MnWARN organization effort received support from the American Water Works Association, Minnesota Wastewater Operator Association, League of Minnesota Cities, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health.
“They were a great help,” Hubbard said.
On July 31, MnWARN and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will offer a workshop to demonstrate how communities can help each other in an emergency. Free registration for municipal utility staff is available at http://www.horsleywitten.com/warn/.
General information about municipal wastewater treatment is available on the MPCA Wastewater webpage.