Inside the clarification pond at the City of Libby Water Treatment Plant. (Photo by Moira Blazi)
An inside tour of operations at the City of Libby Water Treatment Plant
By Moira Blazi
Up until the late 1990s, alpine snowmelt from the Flower creek drainage high up in the Cabinet mountains flowed into the old Flower creek dam, the secondary storage reservoir, the, directly into Libby’s water mains and out of our household taps. Although basically pure water, a risk of Giardia and other contaminants was also frequently possible. Giardia is a naturally occurring bacteria which can cause serious intestinal problems for humans. Spring runoff also created a high amount of turbidity in the water.
A comprehensive water treatment facility, built to process up to 4 million gallons of water per day and ensure that all Libby citizens and businesses receive pure, healthy water, then went online in 1999.
Robert Salter, Operator at the Libby Water Treatment Plant, gave me a tour of the plant to explain how it operates. “This plant is a human-machine interface operation which uses an Automatic Programmable Logic Controller (PLC),” Salter shared. “What this means is that the complex operations of the plant are continuously monitored and controlled by a computer system, but also constantly being overseen by humans.”
Salter and his fellow water treatment staff, Kenny Rayome and Jeff Haugen, are responsible for ensuring the strainers, screens and filtration materials used at the plant are clean and the correct amount of chemicals are being added throughout the filtration process.
After leaving that secondary reservoir near Cabinet Mountain golf course, water flows through underground pipes into the clarifier tank at the water plant, the first of many tanks where incoming water is infused with air and clean water. It is then forced through screens which remove large organic particles like bits of leaves, sticks, insects, and more.
The water passes through a multi-media filtration system and on through a coal and red garnet sand filtration system which removes all visible and invisible (to the human eye) particles, including Giardia bacteria.
Flow then continues into a contact chamber where chlorine is added and the water stays for 20 minutes, allowing the chlorine to do its job and kill the rest of the bacteria in the water. This pause also allows most of the chlorine to dissipate.
Big tanks of liquid chlorine are also housed in a separate, reinforced room for safety, and a “monster” diesel generator is ready to go in case of a temporary power outage.
When the Spring rains and runoff come, staff of the treatment plant work extra hard. “Heavy Spring and Fall rains make my job Hell!” Salter said with a laugh. “We are up and down stairs, shutting off valves, cleaning filters, testing…. it is physically and mentally exhausting. We live and die by the turbidities.”
During times of high turbidity, the staff sometimes need to completely clean all filters and tanks every eight hours to keep the water clear. Then a corrosion inhibitor, called Orthophosphate, is added to the water to prevent the type of pipe corrosion recently seen in Flint Michigan. “We don’t really add much to the water”, plant operator Kenny Rayome shared. “Aside from the corrosion inhibitor, we add an Ionic Cationic Polymer which causes very small particles to stick together, and then an Anionic Polymer which further helps the multi-media filtration materials to capture those unwanted particles.”
“We test the water daily for alkalinity or hardness (PH), and once a month I take five samples from different locations in town to check bacterial levels,” Rayome shared. All testing is done according to Department of Environmental Quality Guidelines. Samples of tap water from town are tested every day for chemicals and biological contaminants. Tests are done on both the raw water coming into the plant and the treated water going out.
Aside from these daily tests, several other weekly, monthly, quarterly, and more widely spaced assessments are done in-house at the plant’s laboratory and sometimes are sent away, requiring more specialized testing at the state lab. Salter shared a multi-page list of tests the plant executes for everything from asbestos to PH.
Checking and calibrating machines and equipment along with routine maintenance are also on the docket daily for plant staff. And when everything is running smoothly, they find time for a special project or two. At the time of my tour, there was a box of plastic owls sitting in the control room which Salter told me were about to be placed up around the outside of the building to deter woodpeckers from causing damage.
When all is said and done, water leaves the Libby processing plant and flows into the pipes and taps of hundreds of area businesses and homes. These guys take water very seriously and work hard to keep our city water some of the purest to be found anywhere in the world. They care about the treatment facility and about the health of the citizens of Libby.
Like Robert said, “We all drink the water.”
Fix-A-Leak initiative encourages water conservation year-round
HELENA, Montana — Montana’s Public Service Commission continues to encourage Montanans to help put a stop to the nearly 1 trillion gallons of water wasted each year in the United States due to household leaks.
The Commission recently joined with utility regulators across the country to promote Fix-A-Leak Week.
In 2008, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense initiative, which promotes water efficiency and conservation.
This year, the WaterSense program sponsored its thirteenth annual Fix-A-Leak Week, which encouraged
consumers to find and fix leaks to save water and money.
Leaks can account for nearly 10,000 gallons of water in an average home wasted every year—the amount of water it takes to wash 300 loads of laundry. To help save water for future generations, the Commission has asked consumers to check, twist, and replace:
Check for leaks. Look for dripping faucets, showerheads, sprinklers, and other fixtures. Also check for toilets with silent leaks by putting a few drops of food coloring into the tank, waiting 10 minutes, and seeing if color appears in the bowl before you flush. Don’t forget to check irrigation systems and spigots too.
Twist and tighten hose and pipe connections. To save water without a noticeable difference in flow in your bathroom, twist on a WaterSense labeled faucet aerator.
Replace fixtures if necessary. Look for WaterSense labeled models, which are independently certified to use 20 percent less water and perform as well as or better than standard models.
In many cases, fixture replacement parts pay for themselves quickly and can be installed by handy do-it-yourselfers or local plumbing professionals. Irrigation professionals certified through a WaterSense labeled program can also check your systems for leaks.
To find WaterSense labeled products or an
auditor in your area, visit www.epa.gov/watersense.