Water District completes summer water start-up on schedule amid Covid-19 obstacles

Fri, 05/01/2020 - 1:00pm

    The lower Boothbay peninsula, the area served by the Boothbay Region Water District (BRWD), is unusual in the Midcoast in having a higher than average number of water customers who are served by seasonal water. This is, of course, due to the peninsula’s rocky backbone, whose large expanses of exposed ledge vastly increase the cost of installing the underground mains necessary to provide year-round water and to the fact that the peninsula is a vacation destination, with many homes that are occupied only during the summer months.

    Thus, one of the most important rites of spring on the peninsula each year is summer water start-up. The restoration of water service via the above-ground seasonal water mains allows those with seasonal cottages to return to the peninsula and marks the real beginning of the summer season.

    Each year, the BRWD must thread the eye of a needle in restoring summer service. If it begins start-up too early, a hard freeze can damage the newly installed water meters. But it must be finished by May 1, the deadline set by the state agency that regulates the BRWD, Maine’s Public Utilities Commission, for the completion of summer start-up. Each spring, the BRWD must work within this narrow window, with seasonal residents eager for start-up at the earliest possible date and the BRWD apprehensively watching the weather report for a freeze warning. Some years, the BRWD is able to get the water back on by mid-April, sometimes not until later in the month. Never once, however, has it failed to meet the PUC’s May 1 deadline.

    In March, amid the rising anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the knowledge that seasonal start-up would bring with it an influx of summer visitors, many from the neighboring states that have been particularly hard hit by the virus, the three townships served by the BRWD discussed petitioning the PUC for a delay in seasonal start-up until May 15. Ultimately, they decided against this step. See https://www.boothbayregister.com/article/boothbay-southport-eye-possible-delayed-water-start/132150 and https://www.boothbayregister.com/article/selectmen-sink-seasonal-water-delay-concept/132444. On April 2, however, the BRWD announced that it might have to seek its own extension from the PUC if illness among its crew made it impossible to meet the May 1 deadline.

    In pondering how to complete this year’s seasonal start-up on time, Jon Ziegra, BRWD’s superintendent, realized that, under the Maine CDC’s guidelines, if a single member of his eight-person distribution crew contracted COVID-19 and had contact with another crew member, the entire crew would have to be quarantined for 14 days. Had this occurred during the critical water start-up period, it would have delayed start-up by at least two weeks. So, after consulting with his staff, Mr. Ziegra made the far-sighted decision to divide his distribution crew into two halves, which, drawing on his Navy experience, he called the “Blue Team” and the “Gold Team.” One team would remain at home in preventative quarantine for 14 days while the other team went to work restoring seasonal water. This way, if a member of the on-duty team contracted COVID-19, the on-duty team could immediately go into quarantine, while the stand-by team would step in to continue water start-up.

    It was a risky gamble. With the distribution crew at half-strength, there was no guarantee that the BRWD could meet the May 1 deadline. But a single case of COVID-19 would put the entire crew out of action for two weeks, guaranteeing that it would miss its deadline.

    Through an extraordinary effort, however, the BRWD’s two half-strength distribution crews succeeded in restoring seasonal service throughout the entire Water District; and they did so by April 25, nearly a week ahead of the May 1 deadline.

    The seasonal and year-round community owes a debt of gratitude to the BRWD – to Mr. Ziegra for his courageous leadership and to the BRWD’s distribution crew for their extraordinary effort. Congratulations to Jon; to Blue Team members Trevor Morin, Aaron Durgan, Troy Gauthier and Weston Alley; and to Gold Crew members Dale Harmon, Shawn Simmons, Taylor Timberlake and John Orne for restoring seasonal water service to the peninsula on schedule in the face of the daunting obstacles thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic.