Natural disasters are a prime example of the need for proper emergency planning and contingencies. Floods and wildfires can devastate the infrastructure of local towns, farms, and irrigation systems. Electrical power lines and stations are particularly vulnerable, and loss of electricity can cripple an irrigation district’s ability to manage its canals. The QuincyColumbia Basin Irrigation District (QCBID) learned this lesson recently when a wildfire compromised its electrical power supply and could have prevented it from managing the capacity of its canals. QCBID’s automatic generators activated when power was lost, allowing the district’s systems to remain operational until power was restored. QCBID General Manager Darvin Fales and Technical Services Assistant Manager Roger Sonnichsen sat down with Irrigation Leader’s editor-in-chief, Kris Polly, to discuss the wildfire incident, the backup systems the district has in place for such emergencies, and the lessons that can be learned ensure better preparation for future disasters.
Kris Polly: Please describe the canal works, their power supply, and how the fire affected those systems.
Darvin Fales: The city of Quincy and QCBID sit on a flat part of a slope. Beezly Hills is uphill of us but is dry, not irrigated, and it is covered with sage and cheat grasses. We have a main power transmission line that comes down the hill to the Quincy pumping plant, which sits right on the west canal near its upper end. We received a lot of rain this spring, which caused the grasses to become tall and heavy. Those conditions created a large amount of fuel for potential wildfires during the summer months. The fire began in August on the north side of the Beezley Hills, which is the opposite side from us. There is normally a prevailing west wind, but this wind was a northwest wind that blew the fire over the top of the hills toward the power lines.
The fire moved down the hills toward Quincy and east along the side toward Ephrata, burning an area of 30 square miles in a single day. At the start, the canal’s capacity is 4,800 cfs [cubic feet per second] and is 4,200 cfs at the Quincy pumping plant, which is at mile 26 of the canal. After mile 26, the capacity drops to 3,600 cfs, so when the power went out because of the fire, we instantly had 600 cfs more in the west canal than the downstream section is designed to handle. The Winchester Wasteway is also located at mile 26, and it has to open to relieve the excess capacity to Pothole Reservoir. We have propane generators at critical locations to provide backup power in emergencies. Fortunately, our generators were automatically activated when power was lost, and we were able to manage the extra capacity.
Kris Polly: What kind of damage would the canal and other infrastructure have sustained if the backup generators had not turned on automatically?
Darvin Fales: That location is rural, so there would have been extensive crop damage. Highway 28 is also nearby and would be washed out in the event of a canal failure or overflow. The water would have gone into a swale and then to a residential area. The other issue is the SCADA system. If there is a breech between our mile-20 and mile-26 checks, the only solution is to shut off the upstream checks, beginning with mile 20 and working back toward the headworks, to back the water out as quickly as possible. Normally, this would be done with our SCADA system, but if the power is out, someone has to drive a truck with a generator mounted to a trailer to each of the checks at mile 20, mile 6, and the headworks and use it to power the lowering of the gates.
We need the SCADA system to stay operational in an emergency so we can remotely lower the gates and control the water much faster. We have two large mobile generators and several smaller ones towed by the service trucks to power welding equipment. Any of those can power the gates, but the key is knowing where the connection point that will allow them to plug in to the generator is located. We take our generators to the cable connection points each year and test them to ensure that everything works.
Kris Polly: How long was power out as a result of the fire?
Roger Sonnichsen: The power company had power restored within 18 hours, and all our systems were operating normally within 24 hours. It took us slightly longer to become operational because we had to reprime the laterals.
Kris Polly: What kind of redundancy do you have for your communications systems?
Roger Sonnichsen: In addition to our cell phones, we have radios in all our trucks. Our computers all have uninterruptable power supply (UPS) backups as well that provide 30–40 minutes of power that will allow us to keep computers functioning. Our SCADA system relies on UPS as well for short-term outages, but for long-term outages, the system can be switched to the backup generator instead to provide power.
Kris Polly: Did you ever receive any communication from the fire department or other emergency services that a fire was moving your way?
Darvin Fales: I did not, and in hindsight, we probably should have been more proactive in trying to protect our facilities. We have a watermaster in Winchester, and he carries a scanner that monitors the local volunteer fire departments, which allows us to know when they are called out.
Roger Sonnichsen: I went for a walk that evening, and I saw the plume of smoke when the fire first started, but I could not tell exactly where it was coming from or going to. The watermaster in the section of the fire and I had a discussion about what we would do in the event of power outage. I did not communicate with emergency services directly, but I tracked the affected area via their social media page. That may be a lesson that we can take away from this experience. Better advance coordination and communication plans between the district and local authorities can allow both parties to work together more effectively in critical situations like this one.