Power loss at El Reno water plant drains reserves, forces citywide outages
Emergency personnel in El Reno were caught off guard just like everyone else when power was cut as part of an effort to conserve energy. And the unexpected power interruption created a domino effect that lasted well into the week.
Fire Chief Jason Duff said fortunately there had been no serious emergencies from Sunday when the arctic temperatures and snow arrived into mid-morning on Tuesday.
However, when OG&E cut power on Monday as part of a multi-state effort to conserve energy, it took the municipal water plant off-line, leaving little to no water pressure.
By Wednesday, numerous businesses were forced to close after municipal water service came to an abrupt end. Restaurants and grocery stores went dark as the lack of water made doing business impossible.
The Siberian deep freeze meant many residential water faucets were frozen, while others could only manage a trickle. But because faucets were kept open in an effort to keep lines from freezing, the city water towers struggled to recharge.
Mayor Matt White said normally during heavy water use, the towers refill during the overnight hours. That was not the case, as the faucets continued to trickle non-stop.
Duff said if there had been a fire emergency, crews would have to “shuttle water” to the scene.
“You would think the utility companies would have a policy of notifying emergency personnel before they cut power, but apparently they don’t,” Duff said. He said power for the city water plant was being moved to another source to help mitigate the effects of the rolling power outages OG&E said it would implement during the weather emergency.
Other than some broken sprinkler systems caused by the below zero temperatures and the “jelling” of diesel fuel in generators, Duff said there had been no major emergencies.
“I hope this doesn’t jinx us, but so far, so good,” he said.
Duff praised El Reno Public Works for the efforts in clearing roads throughout the city.
“They were on it until 1 a.m. Monday and then back at it by 6:30,” he said, referring to the crews that cleared city streets.
Police Chief Ken Brown echoed the concerns about lack of notice on the part of the utility company before power was cut. He said the outage kicked the department’s radio system off-line for an hour.
Assistant Police Chief Major Kirk Dickerson said other than dealing with the arctic temperatures, police reported no serious issues.
The rolling blackouts from OG&E hit the city again Tuesday morning when the power was cut at the water plant and well fields, causing more citywide interruptions in service.
“The blackout was early Tuesday morning but I don’t have an exact time. We have backup generators but they work at a certain percentage and are mainly there to keep infrastructure systems at the well field from being damaged,” said White.
The power interruption came again without notice. But Brian Alford of OG&E said the issue is not with the Oklahoma utility. Alford said the Southwest Power Pool dictates where and when power is cut.
“We go from a notice to a push of the button,” Alford said. He said while it’s regrettable emergency personnel are not notified, the issue is out of the utilities’ hands.
Alford said without the management of the Southwest Power Pool, the “entire grid” could be put at jeopardy. He said such a case would cause extreme power outages, causing “widespread blackouts.”
Still, local officials said they were not pleased with the lack of notification.
“We heard nothing from OG&E and I’m upset. (City Manager) Matt Sandidge and I both called the representatives we normally deal with from the company and they knew nothing about it. Not only are they (OG&E) not telling local authorities, they are not telling the representatives that work for OG&E,” said White.
The mayor said the Oklahoma Corporation Commission needs to address the issue.
White said the water plant and fields were brought back online, but it would take time to build back pressure to the waterlines and the reserve well.
“We are asking people to stay at home, stay warm and drip your faucets, even if you don’t have water. We have people out all over town and working as fast as we can,” said White.
The water outages were caused by the power being shut off and forcing the city to switch to water reserves.
“We had plenty of water in the tanks built up over the weekend. However, we are asking people to keep water dripping and that drains the extra water in our tanks,” said White.
White said typical city water usage is around 22,000 gallons per minute, with a build-back of 17,000 gallons per minute.
“That shortage is usually not a problem because we build it back overnight, but we have not been able to do that because people are dripping faucets overnight. We had zero in our tanks (Tuesday) but the power is back on and we are trying to build it back up,” said White.
White said water issues will remain as long as the frigid air lingers.
“We are working minute to minute but I’m telling people to expect the worst but hope for the best,” said White.