20 June 2021

The Water Supply and the House of Cards That Is Modern Life

My series of Infrastructure posts usually deal with bridges and dams. But the total support of modern life is more complex than that.

You walk into a room and flip a switch; you expect the lights to come on. 999 times out of 1000, they do. That one time they don't because of a storm, or some other reason, you are upset. You turn a valve and expect to get water for cooking or cleaning.

If you couldn't turn on the tap, and get safe drinking water, would you know what to do? If you couldn't get any water out of the tap, what would you do? Longview chlorine plant downtime causes shortage of chemical used to treat water supplies across West Coast.

Seems there is a shortage of chlorine, which is used to treat drinking water before it arrives at your home.

Two problems at two completely unrelated locations have conspired to put drinking water supplies at risk.

First, chronologically, there was a fire at a plant in Louisiana.

The shortage is so acute because an August 2020 fire destroyed BioLab in Lake Charles, La., rendering that chlorine plant inoperable as well. That facility was responsible for a significant portion of chlorine tablets produced for the U.S. market, Oregon DEM said.

Then the local supplier had a piece of equipment fail due to an electrical problem.

Earlier in June, a piece of equipment experienced a failure with an electrical transformer. The failed piece of equipment is in the process of being repaired at an off-site location due to the nature of the damage, the Oregon Department of Emergency Management said. Officials expect the plant to be offline until the end of June at a minimum.

The problem is impacting at least parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Northern California. The cities of Kalama and Rainier have asked people to conserve water both indoors and outdoors, though most of area is apparently just asking people to cut back on outdoor water use. (Sprinklers, pools, car washing, etc.)

There is this idea that became taken for granted all through our economy in the 1970s or 1980s. Just in time manufacturing. Let the person up the line from you hold your raw materials/component parts inventory. But there is a downside to this, because the system that you rely on is not as robust as it needs to be. In systems we used to think about mean-time-to-failure/mean-time-to-repair, but no one does systems design anymore. In this case no one in Oregon, Washington, Idaho or Northern California thought about how much of an emergency supply of chlorine should they have on-hand? Maybe chlorine has a shelf-life. Maybe they were just looking for a way to cut back on the water treatment costs because it doesn't generate the kind of news politicians want. It does become news when something goes wrong, just not the kind of news the politicians want.

So if you couldn't get water from the tap, do you know where you could get water, how you would need to treat that water, and what to do about sanitation?

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