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Last updated: Tue. Aug. 05, 2014 - 11:38 am EDT

Fort Wayne not likely to face drinking water problem like that in Toledo

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Fort Wayne draws its drinking water from a natural source — the St. Joseph River — but it likely won't face problems like a toxic algae bloom that shut down the water system this weekend in the Toledo area.

The river's current helps prevent algae blooms, which usually occur in warm, quiet water, said Frank Suarez, director of public information for the City of Fort Wayne's division of public works and City Utilities.

City Utilities operates both the Water Filtration Plant, which supplies drinking water to Fort Wayne residents and some in suburban areas, and it also runs the Water Pollution Control Plant, which cleans waste water before discharging treated water into the Maumee River.

Toledo issued a warning early Saturday advising residents not to use city water because of a high level of a contaminant likely resulting from an algae bloom on the lake.

Suarez likened the situation in Toledo to water sitting in a basin in the summer sun. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, has some currents, but not enough to prevent the algae population from exploding and overtaking parts of the lake.

Suarez has talked with a couple of employees who have worked for City Utilities for about 30 years each, and they don't recall ever seeing an algae bloom on the St. Joseph River, the source from which the city draws water for treatment and distribution as drinking water, he said.

City Utilities has people out daily monitoring the river, he said. Normally, they check the water up to the dam at Cedarville Reservoir. Because of the situation in Toledo, those employees this week plan to check the river even a little farther upstream, he said.

At the water filtration plant, staff test the incoming water for about 200 different bacteria, elements and pollutants, Suarez said. The staff uses the test results to adjust the treatment process to remove all unwanted items in the river water.

If a small contamination problem did occur, City Utilities could use some of its stored reserve water to "flush" it downstream and away from the water system's intake pipe in the river, he said.

The city has 1.8 billion gallons stored at Hurshtown Reservoir near Grabill, 500 million gallons in Cedarville Reservoir on the St. Joseph River at Leo-Cedarville and 300 million gallons in the St. Joseph River near the IPFW campus, Suarez said. That supply could last 30 to 50 days, depending on the time of year. Local residents right now use about 40 million gallons of water a day, he said.

If a problem developed with the water supply or treatment system, Suarez said City Utilities would notify the public using mainstream media, social media and a call-back system to send a computerized call to customers for which it has phone numbers.

The city also would notify the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, he said, as well as work with the American Red Cross on providing emergency help.

If the water filtration plant is damaged or contaminated and can’t produce water, people would be asked to conserve water to make the most of the treated water the city has on hand, said Bernie Beier, director of homeland security at the Allen County office of Homeland Security.

Local officials can ask for state assistance, which likely would involve Gov. Mike Pence activating the Indiana National Guard, Beier said. National Guard units, including the 122nd Fighter Wing based at Fort Wayne International Airport, have equipment capable of making limited amounts of drinking water.

Local officials also would arrange for delivery of bottled water and possibly tanker trucks of water for distribution to the public, Beier said. The distribution likely would be made at places familiar to most people, such as fire stations.

The American Red Cross likely also would assist with water distribution, said Kimberly Stout, disaster program manager for a 12-county area in northeast Indiana. Various Red Cross chapters provided water to residents in the Toledo area during that city’s water plant shutdown this past weekend, news reports said.

The Red Cross has agreements in place for where it can obtain bottled water for distribution in an emergency, Stout said. The nonprofit organization then would announce where it will distribute the water.

If the water filtration plant likely will be out of operation for more than a few days because of an equipment problem or damage, Beier said local officials can ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for assistance. The corps can truck in the parts or machinery needed to get the filtration plant producing again.

The water filtration plant also has an excellent laboratory, which can test water samples quickly and as frequently as needed to determine when water is safe to drink, Beier said.

“What it really requires is a lot of patience and understanding by the public,” he said.

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