CFPUA to conduct real-world water emergency exercise this month

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The map shows where instances of discolored water are most likely to occur during a real-world water emergency exercise this month. The highlighted areas are located near CFPUA emergency water system interconnections, which will be used during the exercise. Map courtesy of the CPFUA.
The map shows where instances of discolored water are most likely to occur during a real-world water emergency exercise this month. The highlighted areas are located near CFPUA emergency water system interconnections, which will be used during the exercise. Map courtesy of the CPFUA.

The first real-world water emergency exercise conducted by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in mid-March could have the potential to affect customers’ water pressure and color.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) will conduct the water emergency exercise between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, in cooperation with state regulatory officials, local fire and law enforcement agencies, as well as public health officials, according to CFPUA’s Chief Communications Officer Mike McGill.

This is the first full-scale water emergency exercise of its kind for the CFPUA, McGill said. During the controlled exercise, the utility authority will be simulating a real-world emergency, as CFPUA emergency response personnel and equipment are mobilized to scenes to respond under the direction of the utility authority’s emergency response plans and procedures.

“The simulation level is the most involved exercise in the U.S. Homeland Security’s Exercise and Evaluation Program,” McGill said. “It is designed to mirror recent events involving a loss of water supply, such as the Elk River, West Virginia chemical spill and the coal ash spills that have occurred in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.”

The CFPUA has conducted workshops, tabletop exercises, drills, and functional exercises over the last few years, all as part of a larger effort to prepare for an emergency. The full-scale effort is one of the final steps in the emergency response process, which is “in tune with the highest standards out there,” McGill said.

“The full-scale exercise is considered the most effective training tool, next to an actual emergency, because a team develops a real-life scenario prior to the event that must be reacted to in real time,” McGill said.

The exercise will test significant portions of CFPUA’s water storage and distribution systems, including its 1,000-mile plus network of water mains. Essential pieces of infrastructure will either be shut down or activated, depending on how the exercise progresses, McGill said.

“CFPUA is expected to gain a wealth of information about the resiliency of its water system during emergency events,” McGill said.

The utility authority will be using computer modeling to simulate impacts on the system and obtain key data without putting customer services at significant risk. Because the exercise will be carried out at the most realistic levels, McGill said people within portions of CFPUA’s service area may experience reduced water pressure or temporarily discolored water as the scenario progresses.

“When water flow is disrupted by a main break, maintenance, or emergency operations, sediment in the water mains can be loosened, resulting in a temporary discoloration of water,” McGill said. “While disconcerting, the water is safe to drink. Once the loosening of the sediment or deposits has stopped, the water will begin to run clear.”

The CFPUA will be constantly evaluating the water system during the exercise. The exercise is slated to last about 8 hours. The utility authority hopes to have minimal impacts on customer’s water service, if any, McGill said.

“If impacts involving water pressure or discolored water rise to levels where they are likely to have impacts beyond pockets of our services area, CFPUA will immediately end the exercise,” McGill said.

The CFPUA is asking its customers to stay informed on March 16 due to the size and scope of the exercise. Visit the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s website, follow them on social media or on the New Hanover County Emergency Notification System for updates on the exercise.