Concerns about the presence of microcystin — a toxin produced by the harmful blue-green algae known as microcystins — had penetrated Toledo’s 8-phase water treatment process leading to the issuing of ‘do not drink’ advisories that affected 500,000 Toledo residents.
In the following hours, help was provided by neighboring cities, the National Guard trucking in water, and of course, bottled water selling in shops.
Stories of massive lines to purchase water and restricted sales were throughout the media.
Extensive testing and monitoring have followed the initial ‘do not drink’ notice. Still, as of 3:00 AM Sunday, the advisory stayed in place, with the Mayor rightly erring on the side of caution.
From an infrastructure asset management viewpoint, the current Toledo water crisis illustrates a few points and issues that are worth considering:
- Microbiological toxins are an issue in water supply, and the steps to remove them involve high capital and costly remediation.
According to some water crisis reports, this issue for Toledo has been brewing for over a decade. It would be reasonably typical of such problems– they are usually known and develop over time. They are also usually less costly to treat and deal with early (arresting the causes) rather than late (treating the symptom). The use of infrastructure management tools – risk-cost analysis, value engineering analysis, and optimized decision-making techniques can assist technical professionals to communicate issues, costs, and options to management and governance decision-makers.
- Humans cannot survive for very long at all without water, and whilst there is often much resistance to increases in water tariffs to complete necessary work, the salient fact – just demonstrated in Toledo, is that when there is no water you will do what you can, and pay what you have to – to obtain water.
Municipal water supply is relatively inexpensive and looks very cheap when considered against a complete lack of water.
I have a personal experience with this type of issue.
I was on holiday in New Zealand with my family staying in a small town, when salt water was dragged into the municipal water supply due to poor operational decision-making.
The municipal water was utterly undrinkable. We purchased bottled water to meet our needs.
The cost of bottled water was much higher than the municipal supply for that period.
I knew that municipality’s chief engineer, so I kept in touch with the follow-up actions.
The operational costs of urgent remediation were high, with the entire network needing to be thoroughly flushed.
An entirely new water treatment plant was built in record time (and high cost), with waivers on the usual permit requirements.
The emergency response to this incident was effective at one level, in that the problem was resolved relatively quickly (within 6 months).
Was it an optimal engineering solution? – that is unlikely given the speed of the decision-making and build.
Was it cost-effective? I think it was probably 25-30% more expensive than a more planned and structured procurement process would have been.
The extra expense was effectively money lost and an opportunity cost of applying that money to other issues or problems, or not having to raise the money at all.
Toledo will now spend what it takes, and as soon as possible, to resolve the issues with its water supply. There is nothing like having 500,000 people unable to drink water to focus everyone’s attention.
Good utility infrastructure management practice is about trying to avoid these types of issues.
It is about looking ahead, planning strategically, tactically, and operationally.
It is about understanding risks and risk costs and highlighting options and optimal solutions to decision-makers.
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