Guest Columnist

Derecho shows the value of city utilities

Spoiled food could have quickly become another public health nuisance had our crews not worked the long, strenuous hours needed to get the job done.

Pumps used in the filtration process are shown at the J Avenue NE water treatment plant in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Ma
Pumps used in the filtration process are shown at the J Avenue NE water treatment plant in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

A mark of quality for many municipal utilities departments is when customers can take your services for granted. You just expect water to be there when you turn on the tap. To accomplish this, our water and wastewater treatment processes must be in continuous operation, 24/7. Garbage collection is another essential service we provide weekly. Reliability is a benchmark City of Cedar Rapids Utilities staff are proud to meet each day.

Following the August 10 derecho, we heard from many customers no longer taking our services for granted. Residents who were reminded that, even when the power was off, they could still quench their thirst after long hours of debris cleanup, flush toilets and shower. These daily routines took on additional meaning after the storm, when any ounce of normalcy was welcome.

In the week following, notes of appreciation turned to our garbage-collection crews. Entire refrigerators and freezers were emptied from customers’ homes. In the first week, crews collected 1,069 tons of garbage as piles of extra garbage bags sat next to full GARBY carts awaiting collection. That’s more than twice the usual weekly average, most of which was handled manually. Spoiled food could have quickly become another public health nuisance had our crews not worked the long, strenuous hours needed to get the job done.

As power was gradually restored, our water and wastewater treatment processes kept pace, serving our community’s food and grain processing, manufacturing, and other industrial users. For years, the Cedar Rapids Utilities Department has taken steps to invest in this reliability. In a way, the storm highlighted the importance of that work.

The 2008 flood provided another opportunity to invest in reliability at our plants. As a result of work following the flood, generator capacity was expanded at our Water Pollution Control Facility. Coincidentally, on the morning of August 10, staff were finalizing plans to replace and upgrade generator capacity at the J Avenue Water Treatment Plant as part of continued capital improvements.

Switching to generator power across our water and wastewater utilities was, in most cases, automatic. Ongoing maintenance and testing of generator control systems keep us prepared when this response is required. This key investment ensures treatment processes are not interrupted and equipment is not damaged by sudden loss or startup of electricity.

From 2009 to 2012, we completed electrical management upgrades in two of our well fields. In 2015, overhead power lines were run underground, connecting one well field directly to our Northwest Treatment Plant and, subsequently, its generator capacity. Another well field is connected to the J Avenue Plant. These investments keep the water flowing, even during citywide power outages.

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In August 2019, we brought a new Kirkwood Boulevard Water Tank into service. Elevated storage tanks like this one give our system greater resiliency during a catastrophic event like the derecho.

Investments over the past ten years to standardize our garbage, recycling and yard waste collection equipment has also allowed for greater flexibility and interchangeability. Staff were able to effectively reroute yard waste and recycling trucks to run more intensive garbage collection routes when field conditions made this necessary.

In Cedar Rapids, when you turn on the faucet, you know you can expect safe, great-tasting water to flow. When you flush your toilet, you know the wastewater will leave your house and get treated to a high standard before returning to the water cycle. You can count on Solid Waste and Recycling crews to collect your garbage and keep your home sanitary. We are proud of our investments in reliable services that promote the public health. Our commitment to providing services that our customers can take for granted continues around the clock.

Steve Hershner is utilities director for the city of Cedar Rapids.

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