Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Update Phoenix water woes...

The Audit of the water scare last month is done, you can get the findings here or by calling the number listed at the bottom of the summary.

I am posting the Executive Summary in its entirety.

City of Phoenix
City Auditor Department
Val Vista Water Treatment Plant Incident
Executive Summary


At the request of the Natural Resources Subcommittee (Subcommittee) and City Manager, the City Auditor Department is reviewing the Val Vista Water Treatment Plant (Val Vista) event that resulted in a "boil water" advisory on January 25, 2005.

This information packet and associated presentation to the Subcommittee summarizes our work to date and includes preliminary conclusions and recommendations. We will issue a final report when all analyses and testing are complete.


Our review included:

* Interviews of the Mayor, City Council members, City management, Water Department staff, officials and staff from other local cities, Maricopa County, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Salt River Project.

* Examination of City policies and procedures, laws and regulations, and all available supporting documentation.

Following the Executive Summary is a table of contents listing attachments that summarize background information and analyses to date. All information is preliminary and subject to additional audit work.


Did we react too slowly?

* This is a technical waterissue that can be addressed by an independent engineer. However, many of the people we interviewed believe earlier, preventative steps could have avoided the serious problems at the plant that led to the issuance of a "boil water" advisory. Specific steps included earlier "dumping" of the plant into the canal and/or treating the water with lime.

Was the water safe?

* While turbidity limits were exceeded, biological tests of water in the distribution systems and reservoirs during this incidentwere free of total Coliform and E. Coli., and chlorine residuals were within acceptable limits (i.e., the water was safe).

How can we avoid these problems in the future?

* Other local cities (Tempe, Gilbert, and Chandler) with water treatment plants on the south canal were able to treat basically the same turbid water and comply with federal requirements. Options are available to the City for improving the way in which this incident was handled or may be avoided in the future. These options are based on steps taken by Phoenix staff, experiences of the other cities, and alternatives suggested by people we interviewed.

All options (Attachment 2) must be carefully evaluated by the Water Services Department and reviewed by an independent water engineer to determine feasibility and effectiveness.

How can we improve our communications?

Internal Communications

* This event highlighted the need for improvements in both day to day and emergency response communications between operations staff, Water Services management, the City Manager's Office, and the Mayor and City Council.

External Communications

* External communications to the public can be characterized as inconsistent and confusing (Attachment 5). We do not know the sources of information that resulted in the differing versions of events being reported. However, it is apparent the City needs to assist the media by providing a clear and consistent message.

* Two primary factors complicated communications: 1) the time of night the advisory was issued, and 2) no prior City experience in issuing a "boil water" advisory.

* The Citymobilized quickly to get the message out to the public, but did not have established protocols or processes for this type of citywide, time sensitive communication. Our limited survey of 45 residents illustrates the difficulty of this type of communication. A little over half of the people we called received the alert in the morning and about 36 percent of the residents already drank City water. In the event of serious water contamination, it is critical to be organized and have the City's communication professionals involved as early as possible.

Emergency Preparedness

* Key Water Services staff were on-site and directly involved in decisions which ultimately restored the ability to produce water within federal regulations.     

The Water Services Emergency Response Center (Center) was "partially" activated at 1:15 a.m. on January 25, 2005. Water Distribution staff at the center tracked the turbid water through the distribution system, developed distribution strategies, and communicated with Val Vista plant operators.

A complete and timelier activation of the Center (including the Executive Command Group) would improve both internal and external communications.

* This incident must be analyzed to improve the City's response to future Water Services emergencies as well as identify lessons learned that may have citywide emergency preparedness implications.


Our preliminary recommendations do not include detailed steps. The Water Department and City Manager's Office should review the alternatives documented in this report to fully identify and implement improvements. External expertise should be retained, as needed.

We recommend that the City Manager's Office:

* Request analysis from Water Services detailing changes to operations and water delivery options for effective treatment of highly turbid water. Hire an independent engineer to validate Water Services' analysis and related implementation plan.

* Clarify day to day communication expectations between the plant, Water Services management, and the City Manager's Office.

* Instruct the Public Information Office to develop recommendationsfor improving external communications based on lessons learned from this event. Many of these recommendations will likely need to be included in formal emergency response processes.

* Request analysis from Water Services detailing improvements to their Emergency Operations Plan. At a minimum, the plan should include procedures for training and emergency drills.

* Require the Emergency Management Coordinator to complete a citywide review of emergency preparedness based on lessons learned from this event with a focus on improvements in training and communications.

For a complete copy of the audit report, call 602-262-7176.

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