Member Spotlight – January 2019

  • by Will Holbert
  • Jan 23, 2019
  • Newsletters

ACWA Members Pitch In To Help Paradise Irrigation District

Extreme disasters hitting with increasing frequency have subjected water agencies throughout California to unimaginable challenges, making their jobs not only dangerous, but practically impossible in the face of wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes. 

These before and after photos show the complete devastation in the town of Paradise following the deadly Camp Fire in November. Prior to the Camp Fire, the Paradise Irrigation District served 10,500 municipal, commercial and residential customers. Now, about 1,000 to 1,500 customers remain. Photo courtesy of Yorba Linda Water District.

The Paradise Irrigation District will probably stand in a category of its own in just how much a water agency can endure without breaking. But they haven’t been alone in finding their footing on the long road to recovery. Fellow ACWA member agencies from counties next door to urban water agencies in Southern California have pitched in to help with trucks, backhoes and gift cards for employees.

The November 2018 Camp Fire — the latest to qualify as the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire — killed 86 people and all but burned PID’s home community of Paradise in Butte County off the map. Today, PID’s 36-member workforce is safe, but 30 employees and all five board members lost their homes. The fire claimed a total of more than 18,000 structures and charred more than 150,000 acres. 

“We’re kind of in self-preservation mode at this point. We’re still in emergency mode,” said PID Assistant District Manager Kevin Phillips.

PID employees who lost homes are working long shifts while contending with the same struggles as all Camp Fire survivors. Navigating the insurance claim process and dealing with the heavy stress of dislocation on their families are among daily facts of life. Agencies throughout California, many of which are veterans of past disasters, have mobilized on several fronts.

In December, a coalition of Southern California ACWA members launched a gift card campaign to adopt PID staff for Christmas, providing each district employee with approximately $350 before the holidays. Organized by South Coast Water District through Clerk of the Board Jody Brennan, the effort included employees from the Municipal Water District of Orange County, El Toro Water District, Santa Margarita Water District, Mesa Water District, Irvine Ranch Water District and Moulton Niguel Water District.

The water community can be a small world. South Coast Water District Board of Directors Vice President Dennis Erdman once interviewed at PID years ago and ended a November board meeting with a reflection on the enormous tragedy in Paradise and the need to act. 

“What is an agency to do to get up off its feet?” asked Erdman. “I don’t want this moment to pass without reflecting on how we can lend a hand to another utility.”

In Orange County, Yorba Linda Water District (YLWD) General Manager Marc Marcantonio and district board members took an opportunity to help from a different angle. PID lost a number of vehicles in the Camp Fire, and YLWD had three utility trucks lined up for auction. On Dec. 5, Marcantonio pulled them back, fixed them up and loaded them onto a rented car carrier. The trucks were delivered to PID within 48 hours, with two YLWD employees flying up to offer support.

“I gave the guidance to my employees, and they took it and ran with it. I didn’t have to supervise them,” Marcantonio said. “They accomplished the mission, they’re proud of it, and they’re ready to provide further assistance.”

Nearby Nevada Irrigation District dispatched backhoes as mutual assistance, while PID water supplier California Water currently has between 20 to 25 employees on the ground helping district staff, Phillips said.

At PID, the district faces a huge challenge with water quality testing as it steadily restores service street by street, advising customers to rely on bottled water for drinking and basic needs for now. PID’s office was among the town’s surviving structures, its storage tanks are in good shape and its treatment plant was scorched, but still operable. However, benzene contamination from melted plastics, smoke, soot and ash made its way into PID’s water system, just as it did during the 2017 wildfires that burned swaths of Santa Rosa. 

PID is seeking help with water quality testing as crews try to isolate benzene contamination and eliminate it, but it’s a daunting task.

“This is probably five times the size of Santa Rosa in terms of the scope of destruction,” Phillips said. “It’s like being a heart surgeon. You don’t see the damage on the outside, so you have to get inside to see the damage to the arteries.”

Funding looms as a huge challenge. The fire eliminated about 90% of the district’s rate-based revenue. Before the Camp Fire, PID served 10,500 municipal, commercial and residential customers. Now, about 1,000 to 1,500 customers remain. All meters will have to be replaced and locating service connections will be difficult. Phillips is counting on local state legislators to help find a funding solution. In the meantime, PID is determined to do its share in returning Paradise to life, and the aid from fellow ACWA members is helping make that happen.

 “We’re grateful for the whole water community reaching out to us. The mutual aid coming in, the assistance extended to our employees, it’s making a big difference in helping us to keep going,” Phillips said. “Without PID, there is no water and there is no town of Paradise. Our community, our employees as part of that community, they’re depending on us. We need to support them.”

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