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Ponchatoula officials take water seriously

Long known for its good water, Ponchatoula took it seriously last year when reports of isolated incidents of discoloration reached City Hall, ordering tests as well as reviewing the entire system’s history.

To update the public on what is being done, Superintendent of Ponchatoula Sewerage and Water, Dave Opdenhoff, recently gave a behind-the-scenes tour of the department’s operation and history since his hiring in 1988.

His career Navy background brought years of study and experience concerning water. One area of his work onboard ships was that of converting sea water to drinking water.

He continued adding to his certifications in this field when, upon retiring from the Navy, he and his wife, the former Barbara McMurray, settled in Ponchatoula, her home town.

The State of Louisiana certifies in five categories: water production, water distribution, water treatment, wastewater collection and wastewater treatment.

Ponchatoula does not require a water treatment certification because it uses ground water only. Based on population, Ponchatoula requires Class Three certifications. Opdenhoff went beyond in his studies, earning Class Four certifications which qualify him to work in larger cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

At the time of his employment, there were two water towers – one on Tower Road and one at Athletic Park. Water in the system flowed from east to west with that from Athletic Park mingling with water from Tower Road.

There were no government requirements to disinfect water and later, with the Federal Clean Water Act, came the stipulation cities could maintain their systems without disinfecting if testing showed no negative results.

There had never been any negative results in Ponchatoula’s water but “seeing the handwriting on the wall” and learning it was just a matter of time before disinfecting would be required, the City starting injecting chlorine some twenty years ago.

The water was occasionally discolored but it was never a matter of publicity because every municipality had (and has) discoloration at times. Back then, the remedy was a simple matter of opening a fire hydrant and flushing.

After Katrina’s population explosion, Mayor Bob Zabbia made the decision to add an additional water well for storage.

Katrina brought a lot of unexpected things to light, one such, not enough emergency generators. With lessons learned from the magnitude of the storm, the town’s planning included applying for and receiving grants to equip about 90% sewerage pumping stations with emergency back-up generators.

The next step at this point, Zabbia and the City Council began the search for a site for the new well to help meet the needs of the growing population.

After negotiating with Melvin Allen, DDS, whose dental office was on a tract of land on Highway 51 North, the city procured a parcel of this land to drill the new well and construct a tower at the same location.

After construction began, when it was determined the parcel of land was not large enough to accommodate the tower, no additional land there could be purchased; thus, the city then bought land from Ed Hoover across 51 North with sufficient room to construct the new water tower. With its being built about the time of Walmart’s arrival, many residents mistakenly thought Walmart built or paid for the tower but it was all funded and paid for by the City with State Capital Outlay funds.

New Well Causes Challenges

With the new tower came a couple of problems: 1. Its water flowed from west to east and this “stirring” caused occasional complaints of discolored water. 2. In 2014, the state changed chlorine requirements because of brain-eating amoeba. This increased the levels from “trace” amounts of chlorine to “0.5 parts per million” at the end of the system. Opdenhoff added he believes Louisiana has the highest mandated residual chlorine amounts in the nation.

This was the beginning of the severe discoloration problem and the old habits of flushing fire hydrants in selected areas no longer worked.

One of the biggest puzzles was (and is) why the water of side-by-side neighbors differs. Neighbor A has discolored water and next-door Neighbor B has perfectly clear water.

Trying to figure this out was running officials “crazy” and they called in a reputable expert, knowledgeable in the field of water who works with the state and numerous municipalities, Bill Travis of Thornton, Musso, and Bellemin, Inc., based in Zachary, La.

After studies and testing, Travis reached the conclusion that the towers at Athletic Park and Tower Road showed “no measurable amounts of manganese” but the new well on Veteran’s (U.S. 51) did.

Also, numerous brown-water samples from residents were tested and showed “measurable amounts of manganese”.

This new tower had been on-line about a year so now the entire distribution had manganese. At that time, the Athletic Park tower was out of service for rehabilitation so the majority of the water was being produced at the Hwy 51 well with the flow going from west to east, stirring the water more.

The question became, “How to treat manganese?” This was not just a Ponchatoula problem but a parish and state problem.

Problem Solving Begins

The prescribed treatment was the use of a “sequestering” agent that is injected into the water.

Manganese bonds with water molecules and cannot be seen or tasted. But, add chlorine, and the molecules come out of suspension and present as discoloration.

Thus the city started with the sequestering agent and phosphate.

Why phosphate?

Our water is naturally super soft. When visitors or new residents come from the North, they are usually shocked when doing laundry with their usual amounts of detergent, they are overrun with suds. Or, when bathing, they can’t seem to rinse well from so much soap. The problem with “soft water” — it can be corrosive to pipes.  The water technicians ran “coupons” – steel/copper based on 30, 60, and 90 days, determining City water could be corrosive to pipes.

Their recommendation was that in addition to chlorine, the remaining two wells have phosphate added. This is currently being done.

Coupon testing continues to see if treatment is having an effect or if it needs to be increased or decreased.

In addition to having water chemically analyzed and performing corrective actions, Ponchatoula has hired a firm to do a “modeling” of the water system based on information provided: pipe size, storage elevations, pumping, etc.

This firm is creating a computer model which the city will be able to use to confirm pressure and flow at any location.

Modeling will show things such as these: 1. If an area does not have the desired flow, it could mean a valve is closed or broken or the original map of piping is flawed. This will allow the City to pin-point the area and take corrective action. 2. It will enhance the fire department’s ability to fight fires plus help homeowners in another way as state insurance will use this in determining the fire department’s rating.

An Electronic Help is Added

Further aiding the City, Ponchatoula is one of a few municipalities in the area to have a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) System.

This computerized system monitors the sewer system every two hours and the water system every two minutes. Instead of the prior countless trips made to twenty-plus locations day and night, now a large screen in Opdenhoff’s office shows each location complete with what each well is doing: how much water is being produced, volume in a tank, pressure, how much chlorine, etc. In addition, it gives the ability for his cell phone to turn a well on or off from wherever he is.

Example: Recently SCADA showed a problem with a chlorine injection system, one that was unable to be done at the tank. Opdenhoff took that well out of service and it was out the entire time of the freeze. The two remaining wells kept volume and pressure exactly where they were supposed to be.

While the well was down for repair to the injector, the City moved ahead with inspection of the tank. That was due this summer but with winter being the lowest use of water, a crew drained and inspected this tank on Tower Road that usually stores 300,000 gallons of water. This was the first time since its construction in 1982. Now it is recommended every five years.

Workers were pleased and surprised at what was found in the tank: There was some accumulation of sand in the bottom, stains on walls, and rust in the roof, less than expected.

While the well is down and tank drained, a hired company will come in to pressure wash, super-chlorinate, and identify what needs to be done for rehabilitation to that tower. (Rehab is scheduled for 2018 so that is from July 2017 forward. The evaluation will be sent to an engineering firm to design the scope and solicit bids for rehabilitation.)

In the meantime, after cleaning, super chlorination and refilling the tank, it will sit for forty-eight hours before water samples will be taken and delivered to the Health Department in Amite for testing. Twenty-four hours later, a second sample will be taken and turned in. If no problems are found and the results come in early enough, the tank will be put back into service.

The SCADA system does calculations and monthly reports on water usage and can compare rainwater and how much is getting into the sewer system. It has taken a year to get this far and only one site is left to be on-line.

Occurrences Minimized

The recent winter freeze came at a time of year when the normal use of water is at a low of 850,000 gallons a day; but customers dripping faucets to prevent broken pipes used over two-million gallons each day of the freezing temperatures. With all this use, the city did not flush any lines and the few reports of discolored water were not unusual in any municipalities after dripping faucets. Next item the City is addressing is a “soft” flush of all fire hydrants to clear the stems of each before the major flushing of the system. This “soft” flush already has begun in the southwest section and will continue across the City by section. The major flushing will be conducted after the modeling maps are completed so the system can isolate areas and flush without disturbing the entire system.

Further learned, no water provider can ever guarantee no discolored water. Such things as a house fire, a broken pipe, filling of water tanks from fire hydrants by commercial businesses (without asking) can stir water systems enough to cause discolored water. With the work that has been accomplished over the past couple of years and the final system-flushing, incidents of discolored water should be few and far between.

Meanwhile, Opdenhoff explained the rehabilitation work done on the Athletic Park Tower. From the ground below, the average person can see only the nice shiny paint job, but much more was done. Rusted-out areas of the catwalks were removed and replaced. Ladders inside and out were removed and replaced to meet current safety codes. Workers replaced the rusted-out top vent and enlarged the overflow pipe along with rewelding the fill pipe outside the tank, replaced all threaded fasteners, removed all finishes inside and out to bare metal to ensure no remnants of lead paint remained before priming and painting.

In addition to the tank rehabilitation, the electrical system was upgraded from the 1963 equipment to the most up-to-date electronic equipment.

With normal inspections of the tank at five-year intervals, any minor issues can be addressed and this rehab should keep the tank in service for at least the next twenty years.

The City requests that any citizen with a water problem contact Ponchatoula City Hall at 386-6484.

By Kathryn Martin
Special to The Drum

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